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Power Drill to the People: '8 1/2 Women' bores into the sexual obsessions of its characters, including a grieving father with an incest problem (John Standing).

Skinned Alive

Peter Greenaway skins and stuffs his characters in '8 1/2 Women'

By Richard von Busack

WHEN DIRECTOR Peter Greenaway can't even sting an audience with incest in his new film, 8 1/2 Women, it must seem as if he's run out of shock at last. The director of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, The Pillow Book and other farragoes seems to be working at the point of exhaustion. Even his critically worshipped tableau-vivants--the frozen paintings he likes to create with immobile actors and billowing draperies--are ordinary and murky, thanks to the budget-saving effect of going digital.

The film tells the story of two wealthy engineers named Emmenthal: father Philip (John Standing) and son Storey (Matthew Delamere). The Emmenthals are struck with the sudden, tragic death of Philip's wife and Storey's mother. Grieving, the two men decide to turn libertine, changing their Geneva mansion into a fancy brothel, collecting women to act as slaves under terms as fixed as a condominium rental contract. Soon eight women are living there--the 1/2 refers to an amputee picked up by the men.

These indentured sex slaves includes Beryl, a paralyzed horsewoman in a Lucite body cast. Amanda Plummer plays Beryl with black lipstick and a Transylvanian accent; this eccentric actress is at her most outré since she showed up as a fishhook-studded serial killer in Butterfly Kiss. Also on the estate as furniture girls are the aspiring kabuki artist Mio (Kirina Mano), an apprentice nun named Griselda (Toni Collette) and Palmira (Polly Walker), a vixen who had her eye on father Emmenthal even when his wife was alive.

Wanting to make our flesh creep, Greenaway shows us how the Emmenthals seal their pact to share these women. The arresting situation of a son offering to suck a father's cock is staged as stilted farce by the director, who coats this proposition with such therapeutic crypto-sophistication as ever used to justify the hot scenes in a bad farce. Approaching incest as a joke, Greenaway is like some clown who puts a straw hat on a taxidermed grizzly bear--the gesture isn't really funny and does it really take the terror of the bear away?

If 8 1/2 Women is one of the more tolerable of Greenaway's films, it's because he has a remarkable female lead. Walker is only known in the U.S. for slight parts (especially the enervated Enchanted April). She's matured, and it's helped. Why is it that a shot of Walker eating her morning toast should be more erotic than a full-length view of Collette, nude and shaven from head to toe? Maybe it's because Walker's alluring personality is on display as well as her skin.

Speaking of taxidermy, Greenaway again skins his performers and stuffs them like dummies, finding little but rot in the old man Emmenthal and nothing but meat in his harem. The film is called 8 1/2 Women, but the juiciness of Fellini is sucked out to make room for pile-driven whimsy, stiff yet caricatured performances and the resuscitation of the disgusting old joke about "why Asian girls are different." Greenaway's films may be sexually explicit, but they have a priggishness that the years never change.

8 1/2 Women (R; 120 min.), directed and written by Peter Greenaway, photographed by Reinier van Brummelen and Sacha Vierny and starring John Standing, Matthew Delamere, Amanda Plummer, Polly Walker and Toni Collette, opens Thursday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the June 7-14, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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