The Pillow Book

I found Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book (1996) pretty difficult to get through. Although it’s just over two hours long, it actually took me a few weeks to finish it, and it felt longer and was less enjoyable than Shoah (1985), which as a nine-hour documentary about Nazi death camps, is saying something (by comparison I finished Shoah in under two days). Paradoxically, given the amount of nudity, sex, and violence in The Pillow Book, it’s one of the most boring films I’ve ever seen.

Its core conceit, which equates literature (especially the act of writing) with sexual pleasure, is one that I find very difficult to accept. While reading certainly has its pleasures, writing is neither erotic nor pleasurable in my mind. It’s agonizing and an act of the utmost solitude, pretty much as far from sexual union as anything can get. Being written upon is simply outside my experience. I can accept that some people fetishize tattoos, but the subjects in this film are not tattooed, instead becoming canvases for calligraphy. I find this confusing, so rather than titillating, I found the many, many, many scenes of writing on flesh to be tedious. Kafka’s view of inscribing the body as a form of torture and a mode of execution in “In the Penal Colony” seems much more apt.

While this might sound utterly damning, I actually think The Pillow Book is in some ways an interesting and original film, and despite its glacial pace and difficulty, probably worthwhile to anyone who is interested in film (especially in cinematography). Its penchant for picture-in-picture shooting, which never caught on in TVs for a reason, seems dated and gimmicky. Yet despite this, some of the shots are striking, even unforgettable. If you like Antonioni, or other Greenaway (e.g. The Draughtsman’s Contract) then this is probably a film you’ll like. It’s just that you and I want very different things from a film. ★★☆☆☆

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