At once more accessible than many of Peter Greenaway’s films and more problematic, The Pillow Book (1996) presents a fairly straightforward (in Greenaway terms) story in a wholly stylized manner. In fact, the film is so still stylized that it raises once again the specter of whether Greenaway’s works possess any real depth, or are merely audio-visual assaults that mean little or nothing. The story is too involved to easily synopsize, but focuses on a young woman, Nagiko (Vivian Wu), with a fetishistic passion for writing on skin—a concept born of a ritual practiced on her birthdays by her father (Ken Ogata). That’s only the tip of the iceberg, though, in a film that involves an elaborate revenge scheme, a “book” made from the flesh of her and her publisher’s (Yoshi Oida) dead lover (Ewan McGregor) and many additional strange bargains.
To tell the story, Greenaway throws in just about any and every cinematic effect he can think of: overlays, long dissolves, split screens, inset images, color, black-and-white, writing on the screen, front projection, multiple scenes playing at once. He’s not even content to leave the shape of the frame alone and changes aspect ratios at will. And of course, Greenaway being Greenaway, he fills the screen with full-frontal nudity, both male and female. None of this is exactly new. Some of it recalls the days of D.W. Griffith and Abel Gance in the silent era. But perhaps it’s the most aggressive barrage of such effects ever committed to film. It’s similar in most ways to his Prospero’s Books (1991), though the formalism of technique in that film is here mixed with a looser style that incorporates a great deal of handheld camerawork. Both exhilarating and exhausting, The Pillow Book is undeniably bold, sometimes beautiful, filmmaking. Whether it’s anything more—whether it needs to be anything more—is a personal call.