Alien musings

81/2 WOMEN, written and directed by Peter Greenaway, produced by Kees Kasander, with John Standing, Matthew Delamere, Vivian Wu, Toni.

81/2 WOMEN, written and directed by Peter Greenaway, produced by Kees Kasander, with John Standing, Matthew Delamere, Vivian Wu, Toni Collette, Amanda Plummer and Polly Walker. 121 minutes. A Movie Masters production. A Motion International release. Opens Friday (June 16). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 99. Rating: NN

For reasons known only to themselves, the programmers at the Cannes Film Festival schedule new Peter Greenaway films very late in the festival. This means they’re seen by tired, cine-saturated people who’ve begun to worry more about the possibility of an Air France strike than about the movies in front of them.

Now, I’ve a pretty good memory, and it has one interesting trick. I will, on occasion, forget that I’ve seen a film, or not remember anything from a film I’ve seen when it turns up in release a year after I’ve seen it at some film festival. But show me the first couple of shots and the whole picture will pop back into my head.

I saw Greenaway’s 81/2 Women, apparently an homage to Fellini, the second-last day of the 1999 Cannes fest, and penned these thoughts shortly after.

“A middle-aged businessman loses his wife, and to relieve his bereavement his son and business partner suggest he fill his Geneva mansion with concubines.

“This is a Peter Greenaway film and, like most late Greenaway, demands at least another screening to unravel its complex web of allusion and meaning. Despite the beauty of Sacha Vierny’s cinematography, there is something finally oppressive about the unrelieved symmetry of the compositions.

Complex film

“A meditation on masculine perceptions of femininity? A study of cross-cultural bereavement? Maybe. A complex film dropped on an audience at the end of a long day at a long festival. Definitely. The evening press-screening audience was divided between a handful of vocal detractors and the great majority who seemed stunned into submission or exhaustion. Count me among the latter.”

Good thing I’d recorded these thoughts. I remembered almost nothing of the film — the pachinko parlours, the defrocked nun, the horse thief, the father-son incest — and so took in the screening here.

For all its studied outrage, 81/2 Women is simply not a memorable film. It’s like being trapped in a room with an obsessive who just won’t shut up, even as you look for the door and think, “If he says one more thing about model-shipmaking, I’ll scream.”

Which would not be worth mentioning if it weren’t for the fact that I can remember great chunks of Prospero’s Books and Drowning By Numbers, and I haven’t seen either film for several years.

Since Prospero’s Books, Greenaway has so absented himself from the stream of human activity that 81/2 Women plays like the work of a highly intelligent alien whose entire experience of human culture is The Jerry Springer Show and Merchant-Ivory films. “My fiancé sold me to pay my gambling debts!” “I slept with my father!” But all very elegantly lit by Vierny and performed with such choked restraint that one half expects Helena Bonham Carter to show up in crinolines wielding a riding crop.

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