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The Pillow Book (1996)

A 1996 movie directed by Peter Greenaway.

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Sensual and Erotic

  • Apr 18, 2007
"The Pillow Book"

Sensual and Erotic

Amos Lassen and Cinema Pride

To describe "The Pillow Book" is a very difficult task. Is it exotic or is it erotic or maybe both? It is sensual, delicate and beautiful. The music is mysterious and the cinematography is stunning.
As a young girl in Japan, Nagiko's father paints characters on her face. Her aunt reads to her from "The Pillow Book" which was the diary of a lady-in-waiting during the tenth century. As Nagiko grows up she is obsessed with papers, books, and writings. Her sexual odyssey (and her own "Pillow Book") is a combination of modern Chinese, classical Japanese and Western film images.
At the beginning of the movie we see a little girl being written upon by her father. We then shift to see the girl as an adult who s looking for lovers who will write on her body once again. She meets a bisexual Englishman who also enjoys being written upon and she learns that he was once the former lover of a man who had once betrayed her father.
This is one of those rare films that transcend the limitations of film and text and this is probably due to its handling by Peter Greenaway. The movie is loosely based on writings from the tenth century of the imperial court observer, Sei Shonagon. Greenaway brings a visual feast to the screen that uses stunning sets and the physical beauty of actors Vivian Wu and Ewan McGregor as well as the ancient and modern writing systems that are known as the art of calligraphy.
What Greenaway does so brilliantly is to incorporate art, numbers, books and architecture into film. As a young child Nagiko celebrated her birthday by having her father write the story of creation on her face. With adulthood and marriage, her husband was neither interested nor did he want to continue this tradition. When she becomes frustrated that she cannot find a lover who is also a good calligrapher, she finally meets a bisexual translator, Jerome (McGregor). Who offers himself to her as a living canvas for her erotic creativity. Nagiko is inspired by the chance to get revenge on a publisher who had once blackmailed her father when she learns that Jerome's lover is the very same man. She creates the ultimate love poem which she illuminates in red, gold and black characters and delivers it to the publisher on Jerome's naked body.
This s pure visual eroticism and the story revels in the binaries of both the profane and the grotesque but it also is a delight for the eye in the way that Greenaway is able to translate a vision of both love and horror in a single statement of pure physical beauty and very passionate sexuality. Sometimes the beauty of the film detracts from the ability to concentrate on what is actually happening. Vivian Wu as Nagiko is very good and so is McGregor. This is quite a different role than he usually plays but he does a good job--and he also looks good naked. His character is innocent and gullible while Nagiko is very strong and overpowering.
As a film "The Pillow Book" is an erotic masterpiece. It unravels like a scroll and it teases and excites with floating images. Our attention is captured from the very start and our emotions are toyed with. Watching this film is an experience for the senses in which the ending is beautifully done. You will feel enchanted, perhaps even hypnotized by the film and if you like sensual eroticism, this is the film to see.

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More The Pillow Book reviews
review by . October 06, 2010
Peter Greenaway can never be accused of making movies.  He is resolutely a maker of art films for so-called “art house” theaters.      Since movies are foremost a visual medium, so his attention is always on that aspect.  All of his films try to tell a story, but as often as not it gets lost in a convoluted telling.      The Pillow Book is the exception.  The film never stops being pretty, but the story is strong enough to withstand …
review by . February 08, 2003
THE PILLOW BOOK goes where few films have dared. Peter Greenaway is a unique artist and has created a touching story in a cinematic technique that is clearly his own. Simply stated, The Pillow Book is a journal kept by Japanese women who write private thoughts about desire, beauty, sensuality, and the moments in life that are indescribably unforgetable. In this story we see the unfolding of the life of a daughter of a calligrapher/writer who is able to provide for this beloved family and all their …
About the reviewer
Amos Lassen ()
Ranked #208
I am an academic who reivews movies and books of interest to the GLBT and Jewish communities.   I came to Arkansas after having been relocated here due to Hurricane Katrina. I was living in … more
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Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,Drowning by Numbers) continues to delight and disturb us with his talent for combining storytelling with optic artistry.The Pillow Bookis divided into 10 chapters (consistent with Greenaway's love of numbers and lists) and is shot to be viewed like a book, complete with tantalizing illustrations and footnotes (subtitles) and using television's "screen-in-screen" technology. As a child in Japan, Nagiko's father celebrates her birthday retelling the Japanese creation myth and writing on her flesh in beautiful calligraphy, while her aunt reads a list of "beautiful things" from a 10th-century pillow book. As she gets older, Nagiko (Vivian Wu) looks for a lover with calligraphy skills to continue the annual ritual. She is initially thrilled when she encounters Jerome (Ewan McGregor), a bisexual translator who can speak and write several languages, but soon realizes that although he is a magnificent lover, his penmanship is less than acceptable. When Nagiko dismisses the enamored Jerome, he suggests she use his flesh as the pages which to present her own pillow book. The film, complete with a musical score as international as the languages used in the narration, is visually hypnotic and truly an immense "work of art."--Michele Goodson
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Director: Peter Greenaway
Screen Writer: Peter Greenaway, Sei Shonagon
DVD Release Date: December 15, 1998
Runtime: 126 minutes
Studio: Sony Pictures
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