“I am certain that there are two things in life which are dependable: the delights of the flesh, and the delights of literature. I have had the good fortune to enjoy them both equally.”–Sei Shōnagon, “The Pillow Book,” Section 172.
DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway
FEATURING: Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor, Yoshi Oida
PLOT: Every birthday, Nagiko’s father draws calligraphic figures on her face while ritualistically reciting the story of creation. Nagiko grows into a beautiful young fashion model obsessed with the intersection of calligraphy and sex, seeking lovers who will use her naked body as a canvas on which to write. She meets and falls in love with a bisexual British translator who convinces her to write on others’ bodies, and together they conspire for revenge against the publisher who wronged her father.
- The “Pillow Book” from which the movie takes its title is “The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon,” the diaristic collection of anecdotes, observations, poetry and lists by a lady-in-waiting to Empress Sadako of Japan in the Heian era (the book was composed around 1000 AD). Shōnagon’s work, though probably never intended for others’ eyes, became one of the classics of Japanese literature and a tremendous source of historical data about the Japanese imperial court. Greenaway was inspired by “The Pillow Book,” but the film is not an adaptation of Shōnagon. In an interview he explains: “I took some of [the book’s] sensitivities, primarily where Sei Shōnagon said, ‘Wouldn’t the world be desperately impoverished if we didn’t have literature and we didn’t acknowledge our own physicality?’ And the movie’s just about that.”
- Occasionally, the spoken Japanese dialogue is not translated into subtitles. This is deliberate.
- Venerable cinematographer Sacha Vierny had shot Greenaway’s previous six feature films and had previously worked with Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad), Buñuel (Belle de Jour) and Raoul Ruiz (The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, Three Crowns of the Sailor), among other notable (and weird) directors.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are a bewildering number of nominees to choose from, especially since Greenaway frequently places two or three images on the screen at once, picture-in-picture style. The overwhelming repeated image is that of writing inked on nude bodies, however, and so the shot of glowing letters cast on Vivian Wu’s darkened, reclining body as she writes in her diary in bed best captures The Pillow Book‘s visual fetish.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Pillow Book is a movie about a fetishistic, eccentric, obsessed
Trailer for The Pillow Book
character, brought to us by an auteur with firsthand knowledge of those qualities. Greenaway splashes the screen with visual extravagances, with pictures framed inside of other pictures, and images layered on top of one another, melding one into the next. Full of obscure musings about the nature of art and sex, The Pillow Book tells a story of lust and revenge, but subjugates the text to the image, the narrative to the cinematic. The result is visually hypnotic, frequently frustrating, and all Greenaway.
COMMENTS: A man and woman make love. The entwining limbs are spectral, as their Continue reading 88. THE PILLOW BOOK (1996)