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Eight and a Half Women

Release date: December 10, 1999
Directed by: Peter Greenaway
Written by: Peter Greenaway
Produced by: Kees Kasander
Running time: 118 minutes

After becoming a widower, businessman Philip Emmenthal (John Standing) and his son Storey (Matthew Delamere) open their own private harem in their family residence in Geneva. They sign one-year contracts with eight and a half women to this effect. The women each have a gimmick - a nun, a child bearer, a gambler, a student of Kabuki, a maid, a horsewoman with a pet pig, a maid. Philip soon becomes dominated by Palmira (Polly Walker), who has no interest in Storey as a lover, despite what their contract might stipulate.

Cast & Characters

John Standing (Philip Emmenthal), Matthew Delamere (Storey Emmenthal), Vivian Wu (Kito), Annie Shizuka Inoh (Simato), Barbara Sarafian (Clothilde), Kirina Mano (Mio), Toni Collette (Griselda / Sister Concordia), Amanda Plummer (Beryl), Natacha Amal (Giaconda), Manna Fujiwara (Giulietta), Polly Walker (Palmira), Elizabeth Berrington (Celeste), Myriam Muller (Marianne), Don Warrington (Simon), Claire Johnston (Amelia)

Production Notes

“8 1/2 Women” sets out its organising principles in the title while the director Peter Greenaway offers in the press notes his customary auto-exegesis for baffled critics, explaining that the film is constructed around an intentionally comic parade of eight and a half archetypes of male sexual fantasy, as represented in western art practice down the ages. For each figure, a list of artists could be matched. Griselda’s chaste nun in starched linen? Try Rembrandt, Diderot and de Sade. The Madame Butterfly syndrome of the oriental female used and abandoned by a western male? How about Delacroix, Ingres, Flaubert and Matisse? It is also intended as a comic (a word not readily associated with Greenaway) homage to both Fellini and Godard. But at the same time it is his conceptually thinnest and visually least ravishing film.

I went in for another part and I had just had my head shaved and I had a Buddha hanging around my neck. Afterwards I thought, ‘This is going to teach me to go to an audition looking like that’. Peter Greenaway’s odd, but very interesting. And he let me try everything I suggested. (Toni Collette on Peter Greenaway (Vogue & Rolling Stone, December 1998)

The invocation of Fellini is deeply ironic. 8 1/2 – centred on Fellini’s alter ego Marcello Mastroianni’s search for an actress to embody the ideal woman – pre-empted the allusive richness of Greenaway’s cinema. Fellini’s vitality and profound scepticism towards intellectualism as a solution to the creative impasse there seem worlds apart from Greenaway’s aloof taxonomy. The fetishistic perspex corset worn by pig-loving Beryl after her fall from her horse and the wheelchair-bound “half-woman” Giulietta (seemingly named after Fellini’s wife Guilietta Masina) seem a curiously insulting form of homage, closer to Cronenberg’s Crash than Fellini. The final chapter of this saga – the destruction of the bordello – is intended to invoke Godard’s recent deconstruction of cinema: the reason why, for Greenaway, we cannot return to the art cinema of Fellini. This is territory many will feel Greenaway has investigated more successfully outside cinema, for example in his grandiose installation In the Dark for the Spellbound exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery which broke film-making down into its constituent parts in Godardian fashion.

“8 1/2 Women” premiered at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and was released in the UK in December that same year. The film did not receive favorable reviews. Entertainment Weekly wrote upon its release: “Greenaway, trained as a painter, isn’t out to create drama. His movies are literally talking pictures; he presents an iconography of ”civilized” misogyny. ”8 1/2 Women” keeps teasing you with intimations of the libidinous animal within. But since no one on screen does anything but pontificate, I was left to conclude that what Greenaway is really expressing is the shame of a filmmaker who longs, in his guilty heart, to make a dirty movie, and who must then kill that impulse by cold-showering his audience into an unholy stupor.”