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8 1/2 Women (1999)

 “She’s taken your fantasies and run with them to the point of logical exhaustion.”

8 1/2 Women DVDGreenaway films are very provocative especially when contemplating the dynamics of male-female relationships and testing the limits of the audience’s comfort zone by confronting societal taboos. Greenaway’s most accessible film to date is The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, Her Lover. If Greenaway were a ‘normal’ filmmaker in the traditional sense, this would have become his breakthrough film, and from there, next stop Hollywood with the usual pap. But this is not what happened. Greenway remains true to himself and his ideals, avoiding mainstream media and producing consistently difficult films.

8 1/2 Women is the story of a capitalist who indulges his runaway appetites to the point of his own destruction. John Standing (Philip Emmenthal) is a wealthy middle-aged Geneva resident who is depressed by his wife’s death. His only son, Storey (Matthew Delamare) arrives from Japan to console him. Storey expresses an interest in his father’s sex life, and the two men discuss their sexual experiences noting that they are influenced by their generational expectations. Storey is also curious about his father’s body, and during their first evening together, Storey insists on sleeping nude with his father. In order to provide a distraction to his father’s grief and depression, Storey takes his father to see Fellini’s film 8 ½, and this sparks a discussion about monogamy, and whether or not the fantastic women displayed on celluloid by film directors really exist or whether they are fantasy women-figments of the imagination. John Standing muses: “why do you think Fellini kept inventing all these fantastic women?”

Encouraged by Storey, John Standing sheds his monogamous past and begins collecting women, turning his Geneva mansion into a brothel and installing an exotic woman in each room. John, who has long-held fantasies about women in Jane Austen novels, finds women to suit each mood and various tastes. The women range from former nun Griselda (Toni Collette) to Beryl (Amanda Plummer) a horse thief who has a committed relationship with her rather large pet pig.

During the course of the film, most viewers will probably experience a range of discomfort. There’s a certain degree of bad taste involved here. The half a woman referred to in the title, for example, is an amputee the father and son team keep locked up in their Geneva mansion. Taboos discarded and challenged by the male characters include bestiality, incest, and male nudity. And, of course, there’s the maintenance of women kept and housed like exotic pets exclusively to provide sexual services for their wealthy male employers. The moral boundaries tested not only occur between the filmmaker and the audience, but also occur between John Standing and his son. As a result, a unique triptych exchange takes place between filmmaker, fictional characters and audience.

But, since this is a Greenaway film, this is not an exercise in male fantasy and the depersonalization and commodification of women. Rather it’s a story about exactly what occurs when fantasy becomes reality, and rather like putting matter and anti-matter together, an explosion occurs. As the father and son run amok in their private brothel, it becomes increasingly unclear just who is satisfying whose fantasies. The men would appear to hold all the power, but women in Greenway films are always miraculous creatures who will subvert male dominance with swift, delectable vengeance. To Greenaway, one woman is dangerous, but only a kamikaze male with an appetite for self-destruction would contemplate an entire collection. As with any Greenaway film, expect gorgeous sets and the truly bizarre. Greenaway films are not particularly accessible, and they are both cerebral and complex, laced with allusions and the blackest of black humour.

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