Back in the mid-1980s there was a catchy little ditty from The Nails about the singer's real or imagined sexual encounters with 44 distinct women. Appropriately titled "88 Lines About 44 Women," the song was one of those one-hit wonders that had a good beat and made no illusions about, or apologies for, its playful, titillative nature.
In writer/director Peter Greenaway's somewhat similarly titled and themed film, "8 ½ Women," there are thirty-five less women who've been arranged for sex, but that's still nine too many (the half, for those sensing an addition error, is the film's disparaging reference to a woman who's missing her legs). Visually compelling - thanks to the director's unique vision and cinematographer Sacha Vierny ("The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," "The Pillow Book") - and occasionally well-acted, this film is otherwise an overly pretentious, muddled, fragmented and less than involving movie posing as something meaningful and/or insightful.
While Greenaway's films - such as the NC-17 rated "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" - have always been bizarre but visually interesting and definitely nothing short of an acquired taste, this one never really engages the viewer on any level, save for boredom and/or sheer frustration of trying to figure out what sort of message the auteur is trying to impart onto the viewer.
A supposed examination of the whole man/woman thing, this picture is an empty and disjointed excuse of a film that doesn't contain much of a plot (much less an interesting one) or work as either a drama or an intentional or unintentional comedy. Nor is it an intriguing sociological or even biological examination of the "mating game" or humankind's alteration of that basic drive. It isn't even that erotic for those desiring such material despite an abundance of complete nudity from both sexes.
In my opinion, there isn't much worse than an overly pretentious and self-indulgent picture that fails in most every aspect of filmmaking. While there are plenty of horrible films released every year, many are somewhat acceptable - at least to some small degree - since they don't take themselves seriously. This one obviously does, and like other tragic misfires over the years, even its pretty pictures can't cover up the fact that it's a really bad film.
Of course, there will be those who argue that appreciation of any form of artistic expression - movies included - is ultimately up to the individual viewer. That's obviously true, but it's doubtful many viewers will differ with my view of this incomprehensible mess of a film.
Others will state that I (and most of the rest of humanity) simply don't get what Greenaway is trying to with this film and its story, characters and imagery. The director himself, as quoted in the film's press kit material, even goes so far as to state that his film requires the viewer's active mental participation and that it - like poetry - requires multiple exposures to grasp exactly what's occurring and/or is intended.
While the latter is a great ploy for delivering at the box office ("You must see this film twice!" -- although it's highly unlikely that many who see this film will go back for more), and the former is never a bad thing (since flexing one's cranial muscle usually doesn't hurt), this film is the equivalent of trying to decipher a mixture of Latin and linear algebra as taught by a mumbling professor. As such, the effect is frustrating at best, annoying at worst, and certainly isn't much fun.
Nor is the film worthy of any favorable comparison to Federico Fellini's overrated 1963 film, "8 ½," from which it borrows most of its title and is used as a certain plot catalyst. The performances from the two lead actors, John Standing ("Mrs. Dalloway," "The Man Who Knew Too Little") and Matthew Delamere ("Under the Skin," "Shadowlands") are decent, however, when not hampered by a weak and muddled script that often abandons them when not making them do idiotic things (such as Standing stripping completely naked at the cemetery where his wife is to be buried).
Beyond their various stages of undress, the actresses - including Toni Collette ("The Sixth Sense," "Muriel's Wedding"), Amanda Plummer ("Freejack," "The Fisher King") and Vivian Wu ("The Joy Luck Club," "The Last Emperor") among others - don't get the chance to make much of an impression beyond their characters' initial behavioral hooks. That's simply because they're similarly hampered by the ineffective script and barely developed characters they must play.
While the film has some early potential in exploring the often complicated relationships that men and women experience, and offers the interesting concept, but poorly realized execution of the women turning the tables on the men, the disjointed and muddled way in which Greenaway tells his ineffective story - without ever involving the viewer to any appreciable extent with the characters or proceedings - results in a disappointing and irksome film. Not even coming close to rating as high as its numerically based title, "8 ½ Women" rates as just a 1 out of 10.