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. Look - here's what to expect from Peter Greenaway: clever seriocomic art films about sex, death, and revenge, showcasing copious amounts of grisly violence, corpses, illicit sex, ample nudity (both male and female), witty dialogue, and excellent acting by some of England's finest. You will also be treated to Greenaway's taste for ornate set clutter, operatic lighting, endless tracking shots, and obsessions with 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 into his storytelling. The acting in both films was terrible, and their dense atmospheres were so serious as to be deadening. Audiences were walking out for new reasons! Happily, 8½ Women dispenses with the computer imagery as well as with the 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), and then decide to fill up 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 Japanese culture, bringing back the untalented Chinese actress 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 tries her best with a similarly ill-chosen Austrian one. I am of the opinion that Greenaway's clipped-and-clever dialogue is really written for the British tongue, and works only when British actors are speaking it.
Oh - finally, yes, I did see people walk out on this one too.