The Pillow Book (1996)
Directed by Peter Greenaway

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * *

DVD In Association with
Rent DVDs online!
In the USA:
Try Netflix For Free.In the UK:

Nagiko (Vivian Wu), a Japanese model living in Hong Kong, becomes involved with a series of men in her quest to find in one individual both a great lover and an accomplished calligrapher. In time, her own literary aspirations, which are inspired by her fascination with the Tenth Century Heian courtier and writer, Sei Shonagon, prompt her to initiate a relationship with her father's publisher's lover, Jerome (Ewan McGregor), for whom she eventually develops genuine romantic feelings, although with tragic results.

Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book is among the most beautiful and affecting movies I have had the opportunity to see. From its first moment until its last, it is a genuine delight.


The main themes of the film, sex, death, and revenge, are potently evocative, perhaps more so than are any other themes, and Greenaway uses them to arouse profound feelings of love, passion, desire, despair, anger, and indignation in the viewer. The emotions so elicited are even further intensified by the director's having elegantly structured and interwoven these threads with the recurring motifs of calligraphy and the writings of Sei Shonagon. Greenaway has created an intense movie alive with a bewitching, sensual loveliness.

s a
tdbh as

The director is not, however, the only person deserving of recognition for his work on The Pillow Book. Sacha Vierny's cinematography is absolutely stunning and, together with the marvellous costumes, sets, and make-up used, as well as the composition of each shot of the film, provides the viewer with an uninterrupted succession of gorgeous tableaux. These images, having been created, are then commingled, manipulated, and made even more beautiful by Greenaway by means of a variety of different techniques, including split screens, screens set within screens, superimposed images and writing, alternations of color and black and white film, and combinations of these. Utilizing such devices, the director has managed to craft a film of exquisite beauty, more comparable to the painting of a great master than to virtually any other movie. Since film, as an artistic medium, has as much, or more, in common with painting as it does with drama, it is pleasing to find a director who realizes this connection, and who is able to produce a work reflecting such a realization.

hmk ethht
tbhe asas

Such qualities do not, however, exhaust the list of the movie's virtues. The intoxicating world the aforementioned elements conjure up is greatly enlivened both by the skills of the actors and by their fascinating characters. Vivian Wu, in particular, deserves praise for her enthralling performance. She infuses the protagonist with a wonderfully sophisticated sensuality and a distant severity that are sure to captivate the moviegoer. Moreover, while her character, Nagiko, is a vain, manipulative, and self involved individual who is, consequently, unsympathetic as a person, she is, because she is so unlikeable, absolutely perfectly suited to eliciting an emotional reaction from the viewer. By presenting the moviegoer with such an unpleasant character, Greenaway frees him from sympathizing with a particular individual and allows him to concentrate on the emotions evoked without connecting them to particular objects. The viewer is filled with sorrow because of the events depicted and feels compassion as such. Without having a specific object towards which his compassion is directed, his emotions are universalized and come to encompass all persons, even one as unsympathetic as Nagiko. Thus, because it is centered upon such an individual, the film elicits a far more intense emotional response than it would have had it been focused on a more likeable person.


The Pillow Book arouses a sense of terrible tragedy, but the film's sadness is imbued with a wonderful beauty. Instead of creating a vision of a world of boundless torment and inevitable misery, Greenaway exposes the loveliness underlying even sorrow. In doing so, he ultimately evokes feelings of peace, contentment, and an enjoyment of beauty. Having guided the viewer through the charms and pleasures of existence, and through its tragedies and horrors, the director reveals to him both what is to be loved and what is to be endured, as well as reminding him that each is to be appreciated. The result is a happy sense of calm and repose rather than an experience of despair.

afwe h
hhhh hhh

Review by Keith Allen

Home Page / Alphabetical List of Films
List of Films by Star Ratings
Aesthetic Principles / Guide to Ratings
Criteria for Inclusion / DVD Stores / Blog

© 2004 Keith Allen. All rights reserved.
Revised 2005, 2008

Click Here

banner 2