Some films get the audience emotionally involved in the lives of thoroughly developed characters; other films use characters as props and place the main emphasis on ideas or visual style. The Pillow Book falls into the latter category. Greenaway doesn't exude much compassion for his characters, even the sympathetic ones; although this film is ostensibly about erotic attraction, it's too cold and detached to generate much passion or sexual arousal. In some respects, Greenaway resembles Stanley Kubrick, whose clinical approach to his characters suggested that he viewed himself as an entomologist examining the behavior of an inferior life form under a microscope. Of course, some people would consider it a great compliment to be compared to Kubrick, and The Pillow Book demonstrates that Greenaway, like Kubrick, has a strong visual sense. Indeed, the visual elements of The Pillow Book are crucial because the film isn't just about people who happen to be involved in calligraphy; it's about the beauty of calligraphy itself, as well as a showcase for Greenaway and his colleagues to manipulate the visual (and audio) elements of the film. For example, Greenaway uses this movie to explore the differences between Eastern and Western forms of calligraphy and fine arts, including the direction of reading text and both the framing and fragmentation of picture space. You could say that he directs like a painter whose visual style depends more on the simultaneous placement of images on the picture frame than on editing or camera movement; you could say that he seems more excited by the ways he can densely pack his film with visual information than by the naked coupling of Vivian Wu and Ewan McGregor; and you could also say that his love of art compensates, at least partly, for his detached approach to his characters. So while Greenaway could have done more to get viewers involved in the relationship between Nagiko and Jerome, at least he offers us something interesting to look at.
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Peter Greenaway directed this elliptical and visually intricate tale of the far side of erotic and intellectual attraction. As a girl, Nagiko would receive a special gift each year from her father: a calligrapher (Ken Ogata) who would carefully paint a poem on her face, as her aunt (Hideko Yoshida) read aloud from The Pillow Book, a classic Japanese text on the art of love. As Nagiko (Vivian Wu) reached adulthood, her father insisted on putting a stop to this ritual, and he persuaded her to marry the nephew of his publisher (Ken Mitsuishi). But Nagiko is not satisfied with her husband, and after finding success as a model, she seeks a lover who will indulge her fondness for literature by writing verse on her naked body. In time, she finds happiness with a British expatriate named Jerome (Ewan McGregor), who persuades her to use his body as paper for her poetry, but the interference of her father's publisher (Yoshi Oida) gives their relationship a tragic turn. Greenaway deliberately mistranslated some of the French and Japanese dialogue for The Pillow Book, hoping that the occasionally fractured language would give the film a "Tower of Babel" quality.
All Movie Guide - Todd Kristel