The main themes of the film, sex, death, and revenge, are potently evocative, perhaps more so than are any other themes, and Greenaway uses them to arouse profound feelings of love, passion, desire, despair, anger, and indignation in the viewer. The emotions so elicited are even further intensified by the director's having elegantly structured and interwoven these threads with the recurring motifs of calligraphy and the writings of Sei Shonagon. Greenaway has created an intense movie alive with a bewitching, sensual loveliness.
The director is not, however, the only person deserving of recognition for his work on The Pillow Book. Sacha Vierny's cinematography is absolutely stunning and, together with the marvellous costumes, sets, and make-up used, as well as the composition of each shot of the film, provides the viewer with an uninterrupted succession of gorgeous tableaux. These images, having been created, are then commingled, manipulated, and made even more beautiful by Greenaway by means of a variety of different techniques, including split screens, screens set within screens, superimposed images and writing, alternations of color and black and white film, and combinations of these. Utilizing such devices, the director has managed to craft a film of exquisite beauty, more comparable to the painting of a great master than to virtually any other movie. Since film, as an artistic medium, has as much, or more, in common with painting as it does with drama, it is pleasing to find a director who realizes this connection, and who is able to produce a work reflecting such a realization.
Such qualities do not, however, exhaust the list of the movie's virtues. The intoxicating world the aforementioned elements conjure up is greatly enlivened both by the skills of the actors and by their fascinating characters. Vivian Wu, in particular, deserves praise for her enthralling performance. She infuses the protagonist with a wonderfully sophisticated sensuality and a distant severity that are sure to captivate the moviegoer. Moreover, while her character, Nagiko, is a vain, manipulative, and self involved individual who is, consequently, unsympathetic as a person, she is, because she is so unlikeable, absolutely perfectly suited to eliciting an emotional reaction from the viewer. By presenting the moviegoer with such an unpleasant character, Greenaway frees him from sympathizing with a particular individual and allows him to concentrate on the emotions evoked without connecting them to particular objects. The viewer is filled with sorrow because of the events depicted and feels compassion as such. Without having a specific object towards which his compassion is directed, his emotions are universalized and come to encompass all persons, even one as unsympathetic as Nagiko. Thus, because it is centered upon such an individual, the film elicits a far more intense emotional response than it would have had it been focused on a more likeable person.
The Pillow Book arouses a sense of terrible tragedy, but the film's sadness is imbued with a wonderful beauty. Instead of creating a vision of a world of boundless torment and inevitable misery, Greenaway exposes the loveliness underlying even sorrow. In doing so, he ultimately evokes feelings of peace, contentment, and an enjoyment of beauty. Having guided the viewer through the charms and pleasures of existence, and through its tragedies and horrors, the director reveals to him both what is to be loved and what is to be endured, as well as reminding him that each is to be appreciated. The result is a happy sense of calm and repose rather than an experience of despair.
Review by Keith Allen
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