Write on, sister!
By John McEwan
With the proliferation of computers, the art of handwriting seems to be on the verge of becoming obsolete and this is a shame. While communicating by email can be very convenient, it is rather anonymous. When you actually sit down and write a letter in your own hand, you reveal much more of yourself. Hand writing and the choice of ink and paper transforms the simple text into an expressive work of art.
Peter Greenaway is well known for creating shocking films. His last big hit, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, was an intensely beautiful rant about Thatcherite Britain and featured cannibalism. His latest work, The Pillow Book, is just as beautiful. But rather than being a cynical attack on society, Greenaway probes the connections between people.
Writing, in The Pillow Book, is not just a means of recording information. Nor is it a means of conveying information. For Nagiko (played by Vivian Wu), writing is a means of self-expression.
Nagiko has a fond memory of her father painting a birthday greeting on her face. Her father was a writer and an expert calligrapher. Nagiko, in choosing her lovers, searches for men who will write on her as beautifully as her father did. Also buried in her memory is the Pillow Book which her mother presented to her when she was little. Written a thousand years ago, the Pillow Book is the diary of a Japanese lady-in-waiting named Sei Shonagon. In it, Sei Shonagon recorded her thoughts and catalogued her likes and dislikes in long lists. After a disastrous marriage, Nagiko is overtaken by the desire to write. However, she finds she can not write on paper, she must write on flesh.
Using an amazing variety of cinematic techniques such as varying screen widths, colour tinting and frames within frames, Greenaway creates a surrealistic dream world where past and present interact and are superimposed. Rather than letting himself be ruled by the conventions of normal narrative story telling, Greenaway collages his scenes one on top of the other. At times, this can be confusing because there is so much happening on the screen but the effect is powerful.
At the centre of the film is a love triangle between Nagiko, Jerome, the English translator who serves as her canvas (played by Trainspotting's Ewan McGregor), and her publisher. Nagiko writes on Jerome, who then brings her writing to the publisher.
When you write on paper, you can be sure of your text. But what does it mean when you write on someone else? The film asks an interesting question can you possess someone by writing on them?
When Nagiko feels betrayed by the publisher, she extracts a bizarre revenge by writing a series of 13 books each on different men.
The Pillow Book is an intensely sensual film. Greenaway uses dramatically intense colours and harsh lighting. The characters in the film are always commenting on sights and smells. If nudity bothers you (there is a lot of it) don't go see this film.
While The Pillow Book certainly isn't a film for everybody, those who have enjoyed Greenaway's work in the past will love it. And if you've never experienced Greenaway, take a chance and see The Pillow Book.
The Pillow Book is playing tonight at The New Yorker at 7 p.m.