I can't say that I've ever entertained fantasies of writing on someone's body. But Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book does, at least, succeed in making it look like an erotic activity. Greenaway has always been an armchair fetishist of the perverse, a kind of English De Sade in tweed. His movies, notably The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, feature mutilation, cannibalism, and an extremely haughty brand of sexual power tripping. Yet all the nasty business is filtered through layers of ''literate'' avant-garde puffery.
In The Pillow Book, Greenaway has found a subject in which sex and academia are united from the start. Nagiko (Vivian Wu), a Japanese fashion model, is obsessed with having calligraphy painted on her willowy torso. She's looking for a man who's the perfect calligrapher and the perfect lover the pleasures of mind and body happily intertwined and Greenaway, usually the coldest of fish, creates a mood of entranced playfulness. He subdivides the screen with windowlike rectangles, and the visual trope actually works; we feel as if we're peering through a mosaic of desire. When Nagiko, in a Hong Kong cafe, meets Jerome (Ewan McGregor), a bisexual translator who insists that she write on him, there's pleasure in the spectacle of boundaries male/female, East/West, straight/gay melting away.
In the '90s, Greenaway has shown a unique gift for getting actors who are on the verge of stardom to cavort in the buff. In The Baby of Macon (still unreleased in the U.S.), Ralph Fiennes and Julia Ormond tussled like nude wrestlers, and now Ewan McGregor displays his. . .uh, considerable gifts on camera. Sad to say, The Pillow Book's mood isn't sustained. The film gets bogged down in a cryptic revenge plot, and the ugly side of Greenaway comes out of hiding (you won't want to see what happens to Ewan McGregor's skin). For a while, though, it's a true erotic caprice. B-