I've always viewed Peter Greenaway as a bit of an outlaw of sorts. There was a time where I tried to appreciate his movies but found them pretentious, boring, and even somewhat gratuitous. As I've matured I've begun to understand that the depth in most of his pictures is real and the meaning behind the visuals worthwhile, though sometimes I wished it would come with a guide. In other words, it isn't always easy to understand Greenaway's movies. Also, so very few of them are on DVD and I can't figure out exactly why. One of his most notorious movies of all time; The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, is on DVD but it's a hard one to get your hands on. Probably his most notorious movie to those who have seen it and know what it is, is the hate provoking Baby of Macon, and that one we may never see on DVD. My favorite films of his are Prospero's Books and Drowning by Numbers and they are not available either. That leaves me to review one of his movies that is on DVD, isn't always appreciated among Greenaway fans, but is probably his most accessible film yet. Accessible, probably because it stars the hugely talented mainstream actor Ewen McGregor.
The Pillow Book is a loose modernized telling of the memoirs of the same title written a thousand years ago by a woman who lived to serve a Japanese Empress. It follows Nagiko (Vivian Wu), a Japanese model exploring her cultural and sexual surroundings in modern Hong Kong. Jerome (Ewen McGregor), an English translator, is her favorite of multiple lovers. The two share their common interests in calligraphy, art, poetry, and mutual attraction. The betrayal they experience and the love they share is the superficial template for the first part of the film, but there are far more interesting things that develop as the film goes on. Talking about how the film progresses would reveal too many surprises but the story changes gears and focuses more on Nagiko's passion for her writing, which is really what she is most intensely devoted to at this point in the movie. Her father (Ken Ogata) influenced this passion back to when she was a child and her writings remained unpublished after being rejected by her father's rival, who, as the story treads forward seems to know how great her writing is. Greenaway's ability to understand and play with multi-cultural symbols is a key factor to the success of Nagiko as a character and his ability to mend her passions by the film's conclusion is a success in terms of the film's resolution.
Some filmmakers make confusing and cryptic movies (i.e. Jodoworsky, David Lynch) but for the most part it doesn't seem like it is as intentional as it is with Greenaway's movies. He is a very imaginative director that seems to want to challenge the viewer to understand where he is coming from, for better or worse. If you like that kind of film and the summary I've provided above sounds interesting to you then I would recommend The Pillow Book. Some would say Greenaway's movies are an acquired taste and I would agree. However, if you find yourself enjoying one of them then almost all of them are worth checking out.