What can you say about a filmmaker who combines the sexual loathing of a death-fetish pornographer, the willful pretension of a ’60s avant-garde theater guru, and the tender woman worship of Andrew Dice Clay? You could say that his name is Peter Greenaway, and that his movies would be sick if they weren’t so dull. In 1990, Greenaway had a succès de scandale with his sado-butcher extravaganza ”The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.” Ever since then, his films, like ”Prospero’s Books” and ”The Baby of Macon,” have turned defiantly obscure in their outrage. He seems to be saying that society is a vile construct, that hatred and obscenity are truth. But the only thing genuinely naked about his movies is their art-conscious snootiness.
His latest, ”8 1/2 Women,” combines old Greenaway motifs with new ones. The old: books, numbers, full-frontal nudity, and mutilation. The new: pachinko parlors, earthquakes, bestiality, and shaved pubic regions. What fun! In a mansion in Geneva, a wealthy businessman (John Standing), grieving over the loss of his wife, forges a newly intimate bond with his adult son (Matthew Delamere). Inspired by Fellini’s ”8 1/2,” the two turn the estate into a harem stocked with carefully selected concubines. These include Amanda Plummer as an accident victim in a see-through plastic brace, Toni Collette (sporting a bad Swedish accent) as a nun, and Polly Walker as a professional libertine.
Greenaway, trained as a painter, isn’t out to create drama. His movies are literally talking pictures; he presents an iconography of ”civilized” misogyny. ”8 1/2 Women” keeps teasing you with intimations of the libidinous animal within. But since no one on screen does anything but pontificate, I was left to conclude that what Greenaway is really expressing is the shame of a filmmaker who longs, in his guilty heart, to make a dirty movie, and who must then kill that impulse by cold-showering his audience into an unholy stupor.