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'8 1/2 Women'

Erotic fantasies abound in Greenaway's '8 1/2 Women'

Friday, June 09, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Billionaire Swiss banker Emmenthal's wife dies, and he's wild with grief. His spoiled son, an architect in Japan with an earthquake fixation, comes back to Geneva but can't cope with either his mother's death or his father's reaction. Best he can do by way of death-therapy counseling is tell the old man to lighten up and start indulging those fantasies that Mutter Dearest would never allow with a Whitman's sexy sampler of women -- eight-and-a-half of them, to be exact.

'8 1/2 Women'

RATING: R for nudity and sex themes galore

STARRING: John Standing, Matthew Delamere, Amanda Plummer

DIRECTOR: Peter Greenaway

CRITIC'S CALL: 2 1/2 stars


Director Peter Greenaway's "8 1/2 Women" is as provocative as we'd expect from the maker of "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and her Lover." Sexual voyeurism is one of his trademarks, along with full-frontal male and female nakedness in opposition to "the way cinema primarily limits nudity to females between the ages of 16 and 30 -- what about the rest of us?"

The rest of us includes 55-year-old Emmenthal (John Standing) and his twentysomething son Storey (Matthew Delamere), who are soon gazing upon each other's nude mirror-reflections, even before Mom's funeral. Dad finds reason to get naked again (publicly, at the cemetery) and exalts the penis as Nature's "most enterprising engineering feat" with its brilliant hydraulic compression, expansion and propulsion. It's a voyage of father-son sexual discovery we're on here, and some viewers may want to disembark at the first port of call.

Others will be fascinated by the overt homage to Fellini, whose confessional, self-shrinking "8 1/2" (1963) featured Marcello Mastroianni as Fellini's alter ego, trying to develop a movie amid similar erotic visions.

"How many film directors make films to satisfy their sexual fantasies?" asks Emmenthal.

"Most of them," replies his son.

Certainly including Greenaway, whose eight-plus females confront more male lust than any tango Brando ever danced in or out of Paris. Each of the women represents a different feminine ideal (says the director) or stereotype (says the feminist), among them:

The phony chaste nun in sexy starched linen (linen -- starched or unstarched -- never did much for me), who turns into a real nun.

The eternally desirable whore with the heart of gold, "from Mary Magdalene to Louise Brooks," says Greenaway.

The Mme. Butterfly model -- Eastern female seduced and abandoned by Western male.

The nude equestrienne (wonderfully played by Amanda Plummer), who also has a relationship with a pig that she washes naked (she's naked, not the pig; well, I guess the pig is, too) and who rides off on a white horse -- hi-ho Godiva, away! -- with no nude Tonto at her side.

The film is bursting with these and other bizarre, Felliniesque females and crackling with the stream-of-consciousness sexual logic on which they thrive -- a study in sex, power, class and the gender wars of two cultures in the Emmenthals' own private bordello. The menage a trois crosstalk dialogue is Chekhov Meets Beckett.

Greenaway is a trained painter who, like Fellini, wants form and content alike to startle us. It does. Stunning visuals, many reminiscent of Dali, abound: ball bearings flowing down stairs, pastel milkshakes on trays, toothpaste coming out and going back in the tube by itself. The brilliant cinematography of Sacha Vierny (eight films with Greenaway, several with Resnais including "Last Year at Marienbad" -- ugh -- and "Hiroshima Mon Amour") is always gorgeous.

"8 1/2 Women" dares us to interpret the images and synthesize the ideas for ourselves, rather than sit back passively to "watch a story" and let the director do it for us. It's a pretentious theory and practice (so is Fellini's "8 1/2") that I endorse.

"I was always frightened of the possibility of too much pleasure," says one of our boys toward the end -- with good reason.

Fantasy has a way of evolving into reality. However much men start out in control of the seraglio, women have a way of gaining the upper hand -- of finding their way out of male fantasies and into their own. Members of the male sex get their comeuppance.

In the end, this is a kinky celebration of women as sex subject more than object. So go, already, and decide for yourself. What can it hurt? If you go more for a semiotic than semi-erotic experience, you may be confused but not disappointed.

John Standing ("King Rat," "Elephant Man") -- raging against women and Mondrian one minute, pirouetting and singing "Chicago" the next -- is superb, qua actor. But qua nude, Standing gets a sitting ovation.

There's something to be said for fig leaves on occasion.

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