PILLOW TALK

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At the end of the last millennium, the Japanese courtesan Sei Shonagon wrote The Pillow Book, which survives as a masterpiece of erotic and political intrigue. A thousand years later, the English filmmaker Peter Greenaway (Drowning by Numbers, The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover) has created a severe, rhapsodic fable about body painting--about a woman's desire to make of herself a living work of erotic art.

As a birthday present each year, little Nagiko's father would write a sensuous sentiment, in elegant Japanese calligraphy, on the child's face. Twenty years later, Nagiko (Vivian Wu) tries to duplicate, erotically, the touch of her father's brush. She challenges her lovers to write their lust all over her body. Then she finds a handsome Englishman (Ewan McGregor) who convinces her that she should do the writing, on his body. Finally, she will be not the paper but the pen--an artist writing love notes in the medium of flesh.

Any Greenaway film is a complex word-and-picture game--of stories within stories, images within images, like a Chinese puzzle box. The director also insists that his actors throw themselves, soul and especially body, into his complex revenge scenarios. Wu is a fine, supple tabula rasa; McGregor (Trainspotting) shows again that he is one of the boldest, most charming young actors.

It's lovely that, in an age when pop culture dances with the dunces, someone has the mandarin urge to arouse and test his audience. Lovelier still when, as in The Pillow Book, text and texture meet so exquisitely. Sex is a visual art, Greenaway says, and writing is a matter of life and death.