Although it ostensibly concerns a man stricken by the death of his wife, “8 1 /2 Women” mainly seems to reflect the tragedy of an artist fatally separated from his Muse. Having followed his ’80s arthouse heyday with a creative decline that began with “Prospero’s Books” (1991), Peter Greenaway continues his descent with yet another piece of turgid, overintellectualized whimsy certain to further deplete the thinning ranks of his admirers. Lacking true wit, erotic frissons or even such erstwhile pleasures as Michael Nyman’s music, this annoyingly stiff, overlong, unfunny comedy will be a near-impossible sell given an assured dearth of critical support.
Pic’s story ping-pongs between Geneva and Kyoto and centers on a father-son team of wealthy Swiss businessmen. In Japan, the son, Storey (Matthew Delamere), runs a chain of pachinko gambling parlors acquired by his father, Philip (John Standing). Storey has also developed a taste for gambling himself, along with a liking for Japanese culture and women.
On the death of his mother, Storey returns to the family mansion in Geneva to console Philip, who had been faithful to his wife for decades. As part of his effort, son persuades dad they should both disrobe, compare bodies, discuss sex and sleep together. Here and later, pic continues Greenaway’s inexplicable penchant for displaying flabby, unappetizing male nudes.
While the father and son’s subsequent visit to a theater showing “8 1/2” provides some unintentional dismay in contrasting Fellini’s joyous vibrancy with Greenaway’s dull morbidity, scene’s nominal purpose is to suggest to the characters the idea of starting their own harem, assembled at home and featuring various female archetypes. These include a trio of Asian imports (Vivian Wu, Shizuka Inoh, Kirina Mano), a lascivious nun (Toni Collette), a whore with a heart of gold (Polly Walker), a rambunctious horsewoman (Amanda Plummer), a scheming servant (Barbara Sarafian), and so on.
Although some of these women are posed au naturel, the effect is about as erotic as a root canal. Because Greenaway sees the characters not as people but as slabs of flesh or references to art history, pic’s second hour is little more than a wearying succession of preordained set pieces, each working out a male “fantasy” that seems to develop rigor mortis before it ever comes to life.
Like other recent Greenaways, but even more poisonously, pic feels like a bookish conceit grown stale and punishingly tedious. The performers naturally stand no chance against their schematic roles, and even the lensing of Sacha Vierney, who once did gorgeous, entrancing work for Greenaway, and Reinier van Brummelen seems muddy and dim.