The Pillow Book is a sensual tale of passion, obsession and revenge. Directed by Peter Greenaway and starring Ewan McGregor and Vivian Wu, this is an irresistible arthouse drama about a young woman in search of a lover, who can match her desire for pleasure with her admiration for poetry and calligraphy. After finalising her own erotic diary ('Pillow Book'), which is firmly rejected from the publisher, Nagiko encounters a man who challenges her to write on his naked body, he will then bring her stories back to the publisher. But their plan works all too well.
How someone tells a story can be just as important as the story itself. When putting together the elements of a film, the cinematography, sound design, set design, music, the types of cameras to use - all of these elements need to serve a purpose for the flow of the narrative. For Peter Greenaway's film 'The Pillow Book' everything from the sound design to the fractured and inaccurate language translations to the picture-in-picture video style cinematography are employed to tell the story of one woman's erotic journey.
As a young girl, Nagiko's (Vivian Wu) renowned author Father (Ken Ogata) would give her a new poem on her birthday that a calligrapher would carefully paint onto her face. As Nagiko would receive her new poem, her mother would read to the young girl from The Pillow Book, an ancient Japanese text that details the art of love making and the intricacies of the human body. As the girl grows into womanhood, her sexual desires are peaked - and her Father decides it is time to put a stop to this annual custom and forces the young woman to marry the young nephew of his publisher.
Obviously unhappy with this forced arrangement. Her desires still burn within her and Nagiko's dreams fill with sexual passions. Her maniacal husband has a great disdain for books and literature and further detests a woman with such interests. As his uncompromising abusive demands grow, Nagiko is left with no other choice but to flee from her marriage into a new and exciting world. As a now successful fashion model, Nagiko is afforded an opportunity to take on new men as lovers - each of them a calligrapher who allow and encourage her to express herself by writing her own personal version of The Pillow Book on her nude body. After a chance meeting, Nagiko meets and begins to fall for an Englishman named Jerome (Ewan McGregor).
Jerome is living in Japan as an expatriate and falls in love with Nagiko's beauty, her passions, and her desires to express herself through this form of physical literature. As their affair grows and passions rise Jerome encourages Nagiko to use his own body as the paper to write upon her version of The Pillow Book. Unable to keep their feelings secret for long, their relationship is endangered from numerous outside influences; Jerome's standing as a foreigner, the fact that Nagiko is still a married woman, the powerful will of her father, and the dark intentions of her father's publisher (Yoshi Oida) who helped arrange her marriage.
'The Pillow Book' is probably best described as a languid sexual discovery drama. The closest equivalency from a story perspective I can think of would be Jean-Jacques Annaud's 1992 film 'The Lover' staring Jane March. Where 'The Lover' was a pretty straight forward A to B tale of sexual discovery, 'The Pillow Book' is a much more esoteric approach to a similar story of a passionate awakening. That isn't necessarily to suggest that only a select few would actually get the material, but more that only a few would appreciate Peter Greenaway's non-traditional storytelling and visual approaches.
What will likely be a make it or break it condition for many viewers and their willingness to watch through this film rests largely on the video-like picture-in-picture design. As you watch the film at any given moment, only sections and pieces of the frame are used - and often there are other images and other pieces floating over what you're seeing. In a crass way to describe it, it's like turning on NFL Sunday Ticket and having all of the games playing that day on your screen at the same time. There is a lot of visual information to take in and not all of it necessarily makes sense in the moment as to why you may be seeing that specific little square of information.
Additionally, the sound design can be a bit aggravating while at the same time remain completely engrossing. For starters, this film is a mix of Japanese, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, French and English spoken dialogue - and then not all of the words are subtitled. Great portions of the film go without subtitles and you as the viewer are left to imply the meaning behind what is being spoken. On top of that, this film is well known for having very inaccurate subtitle translations. This isn't an accident - apparently Director Peter Greenaway did this intentionally.
For me 'The Pillow Book' was one of those experiences of watching a film I couldn't look away from, but also one that I didn't necessarily completely enjoy. My reaction to this film and how it was presented is more in line with a form of sensory overload. Not only is the visual stimuli a bit too much to take in all at once, but the sound design with the purposefully inconsistent and sporadic subtitles makes the film difficult to get through in a single sitting. I admit to having to take breaks and let my brain work through what was going on and why. To that end I will say that 'The Pillow Book' works far better than the average "sexual awakening" movie. Because of its more artful approach it feels more respectful of the material rather than feeling like a film whose single reason for being is to see two attractive people simulate sensual and sexual acts. While I can't call this film a fantastic success, it's hardly a failure either. It falls into the category of film where each person is likely going to have a different reaction to it. For that reason I encourage the curious viewers out there to approach the film with an open mind.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Pillow Book' arrives on Blu-ray from Filmmovement Classics and is pressed on a Region A locked BD50 Disc and comes housed in a standard case. In addition to the disc, there is an included booklet featuring a very interesting essay by film critic Nicolas Rapold.
For 'The Pillow Book' the 1.33:1 1080p transfer can at best be described as interesting. The film is in a mix of black and white and color photography in a series of squares and rectangles that float over each other making this film's transfer a difficult one to grade in the basic terms of detail, color, and depth. For the most part each individual "cell," if you want to call them that, looks quite nice offering fine levels of detail. However because of the picture-in-picture video stylings, the image as a whole can feel very flat. On top of that the films native 1.33:1 framing makes it very difficult to see, and appreciate what is happening in each individual cell, unless you're watching it on a very large screen or with a projector. The larger the cell, the better the image quality comes through. The smaller the cell, and the detail levels can smooth out to an unattractive smear, especially if there is any kind of color grading employed. The image can also appear like contrast was boosted as black levels don't come very close to being truly inky. Like I said this is a difficult transfer to grade because it's almost impossible to know if the way this film looks on this disc isn't by intention. For that reason I'm keeping my grade just above middle.
With a LPCM 2.0 mono track, 'The Pillow Book' is one of those films that feels like its sound design was created by Phil Spector, it is literally a wall of sound. Even for a mono track, there is a lot of effects, dialogue, narration, and music employed artistically as well as authentically. Again this is difficult to grade because the balancing of individual elements is all over the map and imaging is all over the place as sounds can come and go and voices can come and go without any on-screen counterpart to accompany. Overall I'll say that the primary dialogue exchanges are easily heard - even if you don't necessarily understand what exactly is being said. Like the video I'm keeping the grade for this track somewhere in the middle. It's not a bad track, but it can be difficult and a surround mix may have helped offer some separation and help boost the overall presence of this track.
Audio Commentary: Writer and director Peter Greenaway talks about the film, his influences as a painter and his love for calligraphy and their places within the film. Greenaway provides a lively track that is absolutely fascinating as the man draws upon years of experience and knowledge to explain the film and his artistic choices.
'The Pillow Book' is a strange and fascinating movie. Every now and again I like coming across a film that challenges me and how I look at films and the elements that make them up. While this film in particular may provide a bit of sensory overload, it is still a fascinating artistic endeavor. The picture and audio are serviceable for this Blu-ray and Peter Greenaway's commentary track is an absolute must listen if you find you've enjoyed the film. That said, this isn't going to be a picture everyone loves, for that reason I'm calling it as a rental. Make sure it's your brand of entertainment before you make a purchase. Established fans of the film should be more than happy with a purchase.