The thing about intellectual art films is that the sex is portioned out in little dribs and drabs. An image here, a quick shot of a hot bod there, and then when the steamy sex does come, its infused with guilt and shame and fear and regret. Its the kitchen sink, or rather the dirty toilet, approach to sex. And its not unlike the attitude of intellectuals in real life to sex.
These are talkative people who can talk themselves out of anything. People whose neuroses constantly impede their desire. A cocktail party of intellectuals is not exactly the hedonistic bacchanal of a kegger. A thin, waif-like chick with weird glasses and gas-station attendant drag stands in a doorway passionately discussing identity politics, cluelessly unaware that the goateed prof towering over her is staring at her tits, and the nerdy Coleridge scholar is not living up to the demands of the bored and cutting Russian professoress who goes through men, all failures, like candy. Intellectuals are always caught out debating and denying and dreading and desiring sex, an intimacy that of course consequently never happens. Art films are too often the same way.
Take The Pillow Book (October Films) for instance. Its not a bad movie. In fact, it is beautiful and elegant in its way, layering images upon images, as is typical of the work by its director, British artist turned filmmaker Peter Greenaway. The film is intellectually demanding, layered and puzzling,with numerous references to Asian culture that may not be immediately apparent to dense American viewers, and allusions to Sei Shonogons Pillow Book, while also conveying a sense that there is an answer to all the mysteries within, if only we think about it more. Its just that the sex in this ostensively sexual subjected film is sporadic.
Its about Nagiko, a young Japanese model (Vivian Wu) in Hong Kong who is engaged in an elaborate revenge plot against the gay publisher who exploited her father, a writer, for sex. The publisher is now doing the same with Jerome (Ewan McGreggor), a young British writer. Nagiko and Jerome join forces to plot the publishers defeat, but things go awry, and the publisher ends up with the skin of the writer, on which is written a beautiful text. Nagiko, in her sorrow, takes one more step, and drives the publisher mad with desire and frustration, finally triumphing over the exploiter.
It turns out that Nagiko has a fetish for skin calligraphy. She derived this from her father, who used to writer on her flesh. Now, Nagiko likes to write on others. Jerome is her latest willing recipient. It turns out that he is also susceptible to the fetish, once Nagiko starts scrawling on his flesh. And the publisher also obviously likes it. In this films world, everyone is a fetishist until proven otherwise. And everyone is caught in a strange web of desire thwarted, and of emotions (revenge the biggest, as usual in Greenaway) impeding fulfillment.
This is the kind of movie that needs a couple of viewings to understand or, if that is too boring a prospect, and you're still interested in the film, requires a reading of the screenplay (available from Dis Voir, 126 pages, $19.95, ISBN 2.906571.52.0). At least in the book, one can linger on the images of nude bodies covered in carefully calligraphed handwriting. If thats your thing.