Sunday, 29 March 2009

8 ½ Women

As with Greenaway's earlier film, A Zed and Two Noughts (1985), 8 ½ Women (1999) develops around the notion of grief (and of overcoming grief), which is here expressed in the filmmaker's typically ornate and clinical approach, in which his characters are rendered as artefacts, placed beneath the microscope for the viewer's consideration. As an experiment, it is less successful than the earlier film, which was able to combine elements of obvious provocation and theoretical deconstruction with an interesting narrative and characters that registered beyond the form of mere ideological constructs there to voice ideas in a kind of back-and-forth dialogue between the filmmaker and his audience.

Although far from conventional, the characters in A Zed and Two Noughts were at least recognisably human; with the greater themes at work within the narrative, and the sense of devastation and loss that reverberates throughout, managing to overcome the self-conscious performances of the two lead actors, or the mannered approach of Greenaway and his crew, to at least present something that captures the imagination and creates drama rather than dissertation. In comparison, 8 ½ Women feels inflated and unfocused; as if Greenaway is attempting to express a series of personal issues - or at least, issues more personal than many of his other films of this period, such as Prospero's Books (1991) or The Baby of Mâcon (1993) - but still retaining that dry, theatrical, deconstructive approach that those particular films had employed to great effect.

Suffice to say, the combination simply doesn't work. Greenaway is a filmmaker at his best when playing games with his audience and revelling in the spectacle of expression. There are elements of that still present in 8 ½ Women, but mostly we have an attempt to express the themes of the film, not through the presentation of the production itself, but through the appearance (and theoretical notions) of character. It is perfectly fine to attempt such experiments when adapting Shakespeare or playing with the meta-fictional notions of viewing and storytelling (as in the two films aforementioned), but the idea that this is somehow a character driven film - and that the experiments of the filmmaker are entirely reliant on these characters - is the major flaw at the centre of the movie.

Whereas A Zed and Two Noughts unfolded around the clever idea of twin zoologists each questioning the nature of evolution and the fragility of the human body (in a de-compositional sense) following the death of their respective wives in the same tragic car-accident, 8 ½ Women focuses on the bereavement felt by a wealthy investment banker and his grown-up son - the characters Philip and Storey Emmenthal - after the sudden passing of the family's beloved matriarch. Inspired by Federico Fellini's film 8 ½ (1963), the father and son decide to open their own private harem at their mansion in Geneva, populated by (literally) 8 ½ Women (itself a perverse joke), including the actresses Polly Walker, Amanda Plummer, Toni Collette, Vivian Wu and Kirina Mano.

If we think about many of Greenaway's previous films, such as The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), Drowning By Numbers (1988), The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) and The Pillow Book (1996), the characters served a purpose within the narrative; offering a number of multi-layered interpretations of various themes and archetypes that were a continuation of the highly stylised world in which the films unfolded. You can see a similar notion here in the presentation of the 8 ½ women of the title; with each one becoming a model that represents something far greater than the narrative itself. However, where the film really does fall flat is in the creation of the two central characters, the father and son played by John Standing and Mathew Delamere, who are used to express the more "human" ideas at work within the drama, as well as the perhaps more important idea of the male gaze (especially in how it pertains to the viewing and creation of art).

When placed front and centre, the limitations of these characters in the traditional, narrative sense, is overwhelmed by the flat, austere and highly formal presentation of the imagery. We're supposed to warm to these people, or at least take some kind of interest in their actions, but the coldness of the performances, the knowing, self-absorption of the dialog and Greenaway's stylistic techniques put us at a distance. It's unfortunate, but the characters simply aren't as interesting as the rest of the film; dwarfed by the ironic presentation of the images and the overwhelming technicality of Greenaway's approach to cinema. In this respect, we could probably argue that there is simply far too much going on - both within the frame and within the lives of these two characters - for the film to work on either level. As a result, the film is unable to affect us on a personal level, leaving the central notion of the film (grief and overcoming it) floundering amidst the more interesting depictions of the women and how they are used and subverted by the film itself.

Of course, there are all kinds of interpretations that we can find here, including the idea of archetypes and stereotypes and the presentation of women as depicted in classical art (with the conventional, if controversial notions of the mother, the whore, the angel, the cripple, the dominatrix and the submissive, etc), as well as the various ideas of masculinity (presented here as a combination of near-incestuous homoeroticism, narcissism and self infatuation), dependence and the always prevalent reflections on life and death. Into this, there is also a commentary on the nature of cinema; in viewing images, finding inspiration, taking a model (physical) and attempting to create a model (living) around it.

Despite the criticisms from those at odds with Greenaway's work - i.e. the kind of viewers who throw around the "p-word" and take offence with his fairly far-out ideas about what cinema is and what cinema should aspire to - the filmmaker has adequately demonstrated in the past that he is just as capable of conveying human emotion and moments of great drama as well as the more obvious intellectual/academic experiments that he is perhaps more famous for. His best films all manage to convey such elements of human nature and human emotion alongside the experiments with the form and presentation; offering the viewer something that not only has the ability to make us think, but to also make us feel. In many of his films this is conveyed in the expression itself; in which a world is created and sustained and ideas are developed that become as engaging (if not more engaging) as any laboured plot twist, narrative development or deus ex machina.

This element seems to be missing from 8 ½ Women, which is perhaps Greenaway's most character-oriented work and, we assume, his most personal. It seems to express many of his own thoughts and feelings about life (he had recently divorced and moved to the Netherlands) and perhaps cinema (the continual references to Fellini and his great triumph, the aforementioned 8 ½), with a number of deeper interpretations that are still there, if perhaps not quite as fully formed. It also lacks the filmmaker's marvellous sense of humour, which was perfectly realised in his most famous film, the pitch-black parable The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, in which Greenaway once again illustrated his ability to create memorable characters with complex emotions alongside a fully realised visual approach, in which continuity, staging and CinemaScope photography (in opulent colours that referenced Hitchcock's Vertigo, 1958) were each used to help create a world that complimented his characters and their internal or external space.

On its initial premier at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1999, the film was greeted with some of the worst reviews of Greenaway's already highly contentious career. Since then, the filmmaker has remained decidedly low-key. His multi-part, multi-media project The Tulse Luper Suitcases (2003) suffered from poor distribution and seemed to be at least five or six years ahead of its time, leaving many audiences lost and confused. Similarly, his most recent narrative film, the satirical art-mystery Nightwatching (2007) (a portrait of the artist Rembrandt and his enigmatic work The Night Watch, 1642) seems to have vanished without a trace.

However, none of this changes the fact that 8 ½ Women is essentially a failure, if, perhaps, an interesting one, worthy of some thought and consideration. As critic Geoff Andrew wrote in Time Out, "The film has the usual collage of lists, perverse conceits, strange images, arcane illusions and nudity; but far more lazily assembled than previously. The writing is without wit, the pacing clumsy, the 'surrealism' forced and the whole, pretty pointless." I don't particularly think it is "pointless", as Andrew would suggest, although it certainly seems more lazily assembled than previously. Instead, I'd be more inclined to agree with the sentiments of Roger Ebert, who wrote, "It is not possible to 'like' this film, although one admires it, and is intrigued."