The Pillow Book (1995)

Genres - Avant-garde / Experimental, Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Erotic Drama  |   Release Date - Jun 6, 1997 (USA)  |   Run Time - 126 min.  |   Countries - France, United Kingdom, Japan, Netherlands  |   MPAA Rating - NC17
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Review by Todd Kristel

Some films get the audience emotionally involved in the lives of thoroughly developed characters; other films use characters as props and place the main emphasis on ideas or visual style. The Pillow Book falls into the latter category. Greenaway doesn't exude much compassion for his characters, even the sympathetic ones; although this film is ostensibly about erotic attraction, it's too cold and detached to generate much passion or sexual arousal. In some respects, Greenaway resembles Stanley Kubrick, whose clinical approach to his characters suggested that he viewed himself as an entomologist examining the behavior of an inferior life form under a microscope. Of course, some people would consider it a great compliment to be compared to Kubrick, and The Pillow Book demonstrates that Greenaway, like Kubrick, has a strong visual sense. Indeed, the visual elements of The Pillow Book are crucial because the film isn't just about people who happen to be involved in calligraphy; it's about the beauty of calligraphy itself, as well as a showcase for Greenaway and his colleagues to manipulate the visual (and audio) elements of the film. For example, Greenaway uses this movie to explore the differences between Eastern and Western forms of calligraphy and fine arts, including the direction of reading text and both the framing and fragmentation of picture space. You could say that he directs like a painter whose visual style depends more on the simultaneous placement of images on the picture frame than on editing or camera movement; you could say that he seems more excited by the ways he can densely pack his film with visual information than by the naked coupling of Vivian Wu and Ewan McGregor; and you could also say that his love of art compensates, at least partly, for his detached approach to his characters. So while Greenaway could have done more to get viewers involved in the relationship between Nagiko and Jerome, at least he offers us something interesting to look at.