Peter Greenaway's films are an acquired taste. I've never been to one where I haven't seen people walking out of the theatre in disgust. So look, here's what to expect: erudite examinations of sex, death, and revenge, with copious amounts of violence, corpses, sex, nudity (male and female), witty dialogue, and excellent acting by England's finest. You will also be treated to Greenaway's fondness for ornate set clutter, operatic lighting, endless tracking shots, and obsessive references to numbers, systems, art, decay, bodily functions, games, rituals, and language. Got it?
I'm a big Greenaway fan, but I feel he lost steam with Prospero's Books and The Pillow Book, where he put more energy into multi-layered, computer-created imagery than storytelling. The acting in both films was terrible, their dense atmospheres so serious as to be deadening. Audiences were walking out for new reasons! Happily, 8½ Women dispenses with both computer imagery and sickening violence; unhappily, its story meanders, and the quality of the performances is variable.
A wealthy British industrialist living in Geneva (John Standing) has just lost his wife, and his son (Matthew Delamere) returns from Japan to console him. After viewing the classic Fellini film 8½, the two men ponder the likelihood of films merely reflecting the sexual fantasies of their directors (typical self-referential Greenaway humor), so they decide to fill their mansion with eight and a half women (the "half" is an amputee) in order to live out some fantasies of their own. As it turns out, they're overwhelmed by the complex, intelligent women they take in, and the film becomes a breakdown of sexual stereotypes as these baffled men eventually kneel before female mystery. But the director already tackled this topic a decade ago in his infinitely better Drowning By Numbers, and halfway through 8½ Women, the story finds itself in a muddle.
After the Japan-set The Pillow Book, Greenaway continues his new obsession with Asian culture, bringing back the untalented Vivian Wu, along with several Asian actresses, to make up half the "fantasy women". The others include Polly Walker (Enchanted April), Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense), and Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction), who, if you're interested, all get buck naked. But only Walker emerges with much dignity: Collette is saddled with an awful Norwegian(!) accent, and Plummer struggles with an Austrian one. Greenaway's clipped-and-clever dialogue is perhaps best spoken in a British accent.
Oh – finally, yes, I saw people walk out on this one too.