Z To A: The Pillow Book (1996)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

the pillow book 01

Plot Synopsis: Three experiences make an indelible impression on a young girl’s childhood: her father’s tender calligraphy on her face and neck, the text of a noblewoman’s sensual diary (or “pillow book”), and the discovery that her father is being blackmailed. These three images become a single obsession when the girl becomes a woman (Vivian Wu) and meets a man (Ewan McGregor) who offers his body to her, both as a blank page to write upon and as a weapon of revenge.

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

The Pillow Book is the story of a woman trying to satisfy a fetish, simple as that. A chance encounter translates that fetish into art and solidifies her identity. For a brief period her art, love and fetishism co-exist, but not for long. Human folly intervenes and the story becomes something else.

But The Pillow Book is more than that. It is also one of the strangest, most uncomfortable viewing experiences for many, plain unwatchable for others. For one thing I don’t know any straight men who enjoy this movie. No matter how cultured or nice they are, they draw a hard line in the sand.

This is probably why.

This is probably why.

There’s a lot of full-frontal male nudity in this film, definitely the most I’ve seen in one place, and for the most part it’s unpleasant to look at. Then there’s Ewan McGregor, whose size (apparently) crushes the male ego within milliseconds. My favorite quote on this came from Mr. Cranky, of all places:

“While it was a significant point of pride to discover that I was better hung than all the men in Japan, it didn’t mitigate my alarmed fixation on McGregor, who proved better hung than I. Perhaps he got some kind of rubdown before his takes. Perhaps the camera was at a favorable angle. Perhaps he was wearing a prosthetic or had his penis digitally remastered as a stipulation of his contract. All I know is that I had to sit in the theater for two hours confronted with glaring evidence of my own inadequacy.”

However, Ewan McGregor’s penis isn’t the reason I own The Pillow Book. It was the emotional ramifications that came from watching it. The first time I saw it was when I was a teenager, staying up late with friends and watching movies until three or four in the morning. I fell asleep at one point, only to be awakened to the sound of Jerome (McGregor) pounding on a door, screaming and crying. In my half-asleep state I thought it was one of the saddest, most pathetic things I had ever heard.

I drifted off again and when I woke Jerome had died. He was quiet then, lying on a slab with his arms folded over his chest and his skin turning blue. Not only that, he was being eviscerated onscreen and turned into a fetish object. Since then I’ve noted his demise as my personal “most mind-numbing death” of all time. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it just… well, it was awful.

Strangely enough, the same experience happened before writing this. My schedule is such that I have to watch the films for this series really late at night. I fell asleep and woke up at the same moment, when Jerome is pounding and pleading at that door. I pretty much felt the same as I had years before.

This is pretty remarkable because as a whole The Pillow Book is emotionally distant. Its protagonist, Nagiko (Wu), is rather manipulative, selfish and unlikable at times. For the first half of the film she struggles but behaves like a complete brat when she makes it, berating the men who desire her. To be honest Jerome is no prize either, although he wills Nagiko to discover how she wants to express herself. If you want to get back to subject of penises again, Jerome’s is his downfall. He is also reckless and unintelligent when it comes to his decisions, which leads to his demise.

Still, the film is fascinating to watch. I’ve seen it several times over the years, usually in the company of open-minded friends. I recognize I own it for sentimental reasons (God, that’s so weird) but there is a singularity and oddness about it that I respect. As a director Peter Greenaway simply doesn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks.

Like when this shit happens.  Seriously.  It's disgusting.

Like when this shit happens. Seriously. He really doesn’t.

Visually is where he gets things right. The Pillow Book is a feast, reminding me of an installation piece more than a film. There are images on top of images layered with text fading into other images, sometimes accompanied by dialogue or subtitles or both. It is obsessed with language and the act of writing, and I’ve discovered the more you know the more you understand (some of the plot points are in Mandarin or French, for example).

Aside from that the film has made an impression in other areas of my life. I still have bits of its soundtrack on my iPod and elsewhere (Pillow Talk, Guesch Patti, U2, Lee Yao). I began writing “Pillow Books” months after seeing it- in my case, humorous public journals- that my friends were free to read. My friend Ilana and I even buried a cat we found on the side of the road, christening him “Jerome F.,” and exchange the character’s most famous lines every now and then: “Meet me at the library. Any library. Every library.” That’s as serious as an inside joke can get.

Above all, The Pillow Book fits in with the recurring themes of this series. As strange as it is the film seems at home. While re-watching it I was reminded of others I’ve written about. It utilizes visual mediums like Run Lola Run, is told through non-chronological memory like The Singing Detective and has the protagonist vs. world/self arc like Punch-Drunk Love or La Vie En Rose.

Nevertheless there are some things no film will have in common with it. Even McGregor himself referenced some of its absurdities. “I had sex with everyone in that,” he mused on The Tonight Show in 2002. When the audience catcalled he added: “I had sex with a sixty-five-year-old Japanese man in that movie… and it was very nice.”

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