The Pillow Book Blu-ray Review: Peter Greenaway's Idiosyncratic Collage

Eroticism and revenge mingle as aspect ratios shift.
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Peter Greenaway’s 1996 film The Pillow Book is alternately a sensual exploration of memory and a hot-blooded revenge fantasy, but it never fully embraces either, its eroticism often aloof and its violence almost completely suggestive. No one should expect otherwise from the idiosyncratic British director, who indulges his love for stagy compositions and florid production design while only half-committing to a traditional narrative, the film’s tableau-like scenes functioning more as standalone setpieces than components of a fluid story.

Greenaway trains the viewer to expect this by plunging almost immediately into a dense collage of images — academy frames, widescreen frames, tiny little squares of an image, some color and some black-and-white — all overlapping and melding in a way that suggests something approximating early-video-era experimental film.

Eventually, a story reveals itself; Japanese model Nagiko (Vivian Wu) longingly remembers her childhood, when her father (Ken Ogata) would paint calligraphic characters on her face while her aunt (Hideko Yoshida) would read passages from Sei Shōnagon’s titular collection of observations. As an adult, the experience has defined Nagiko’s sexual identity, as she struggles to find a lover who can satisfy her desire for elaborate body painting.

Enter Jerome (Ewan McGregor), a British translator with lackluster calligraphy skills who inspires a role reversal in Nagiko, encouraging her to write on his body. Her initial hesitance gives way to newfound obsession and develops into a desire to write a book like Shōnagon’s Pillow Book. Jerome suggests a publisher (Yoshi Oida), who also happens to be his lover, and who has a sordid history with Nagiko’s father. It’s a recipe for disaster, naturally, and after subsequent rejections from the publisher and Jerome, she embarks on an elaborate mission of revenge, decorated bodies used as weapons.

Despite rampant nudity and provocative, imaginative violent acts, The Pillow Book never quite gives itself over to the passions of its characters. Greenaway’s schematic formal constructions are always apparent, but this turns out to be more of an asset than a detriment, as it’s easier to marvel at the mélange of imagery and sound than the potentially risible story.

Movie-of-the-month club Film Movement has recently entered the Blu-ray market, with The Pillow Book its highest-profile high-def title to date. Like the 2011 UK Blu-ray release from Park Circus, Film Movement presents the film in a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer, all of the film’s shifting aspect ratios presented inside an academy frame. Obviously, this is a less-than-ideal solution, but it’s certainly the simplest way to replicate the theatrical look.

As for the transfer itself, it’s plenty soft, especially in the black-and-white widescreen scenes, which have a persistent fuzziness around the edges. The full-frame color shots look the best, but still have the slightly de-saturated, hazy look of an older video master. The Park Circus Blu-ray received similar complaints upon its release, but the company credited the look to soft elements and optical effects, which could be plausible here. All in all, it’s an acceptable transfer of a film that just doesn’t translate all that well to a home-viewing environment. To the disc’s credit, the LPCM 2.0 mono soundtrack is nice and clean.

Extras include a newly recorded audio commentary from Greenaway, the theatrical trailer and a booklet with an essay by critic Nicolas Rapold. 

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