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8 1/2 Women

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In a defining early moment in Peter Greenaway's bloodless, joyless, appalling 8 1/2 Women, an aging widower and his grown-up son, prompted by a screening of Fellini's 8 1/2, muse about how directors make films to realize their sexual fantasies. On these narrow terms, Greenaway is claiming an ill-advised kinship with the sensualist Fellini, but his fantasies are laughably turgid and dull by comparison, mapped out with all the spontaneity of a trigonometric theorem. Lacking both the savage social commentary of such earlier black comedies as The Draughtsman's Contract and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover and the elaborate paintbox trickery of his last exercise, The Pillow Book, the director's perverted head games seem emptier than ever. His answer to Fellini surrogate Marcello Mastroianni is John Standing, a withered old gentleman whose libido suddenly kicks back to life when his wife dies and jet-setting son Matthew Delamere comes home from Japan. Wealthy and bored, the two turn the empty rooms into a personal bordello, hiring nine women (the "half" in the title is a none-too-tasteful reference to an amputee) of widely varying backgrounds. They include a Kabuki enthusiast (Vivian Wu), a butch nun (Toni Collette), a kind-hearted nymph (Polly Walker), a mother who's compulsively pregnant (Natacha Amal), and a fetishist into bareback horse-riding and giant pigs (Amanda Plummer, who spends most of the time trapped in a clear plastic body brace). As with all Greenaway orgies, the flesh on display is strictly for show; even if he didn't see the human body as grotesque, his antiseptic style is a guaranteed mood-killer. The film is choked with his usual high-minded wordplay and literary allusions, but save for an amusingly belated birds-and-the-bees talk between father and son, the banter is tiresome. By the end, Greenaway's only stimulating game is to count down the women as they drop out of sight, knowing the credits will inevitably roll at zero.