2016 Film Essays

At the Cinémathèque: ‘The Pillow Book’ (Peter Greenaway, 1996)


Peter Greenaway’s dense and artificial formal style challenges our conception of narrative cinema. Drawing from the wealth of art history, he brings theory and essay to the screen by using characters and scenarios as a means of investigating the audience’s relationship with art. Sensuality, at the heart of the impulsive consumption and production of art, plays an integral role within his craft. In The Pillow Book, a Japanese woman becomes obsessed with having calligraphers use her body as a text until she herself becomes the writer.

The tension of images, sounds and history play a huge role in Greenaway’s work. As two competing images work to the same goal, they create a discomfort in the gaze as viewers are torn and drawn in two different directions. The compounding elements of history and art engage to separate from easy pleasures, challenging the confines of the cinematic frame. Greenaway has said about his own filmmaking, “I am arguing for cinema for its own sake, without necessarily demanding that an audience should be battered into suspended disbelief or that such a thing is cinema’s sole function.” Cinema has long been locked into style and patterns we’ve deemed as natural, and Greenaway quite purposefully tries to unsettle the status quo as he challenges the screen to create experiences unavailable to the other arts.


His cinema has been called “misanthropic” by David Thomson in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, but the application doesn’t quite fit for The Pillow Book. The filmmaking itself feels distant and solitary, certainly, but warmth bleeds through the artificiality. Cinema that can so often be wrapped up in emotional outbursts doesn’t need to thrive on them, as evidenced by the mannequin approach of filmmakers like Robert Bresson, who have long painted the most spiritual films of the screen. Through his intense formalism, Greenaway can seem even further removed than even Bresson, but that doesn’t mean he cannot achieve the same results.

In The Pillow Book, the emotion wrought from deliberate repetitions and connections to history grow through sensualism. Echoing the original pillow book, an ancient text written by Sei Shōnagon, the movie utilizes sex as a bridge between wanting and having. In Shōnagon’s book, she writes “In life there are two things which are dependable. The pleasures of the flesh and the pleasures of literature.” The protagonist of The Pillow Book, Nagiko (Vivian Wu), has her own diary that she fills with memories and feelings about her own life, but they are all negative. The film’s journey through sex and writing gives Nagiko a new understanding of her role within time, offering her the opportunity to reflect on the transcendent pleasures of the body.


The flesh of books and the flesh of the body meet as the film’s central image. Lying on the edges of the story seems to be the power of both great writing and great sex to stop or alter the linearity of time. The spirituality of their shared sensuality acts as a self-effacing tool, and the ability to scale back to nothingness and merge with something greater represents a central tenant of the film’s message. The body becomes the form that reflects the multiplicity of influences and pressures of a person’s experiences/temperament, as the quality of the pages are determined by class, privilege and lifestyle. As formally challenging as The Pillow Book may be, it romantically creates a love affair unbound by its physical limits, connecting it to past and present through art and literature.

The Pillow Book screened as a part of a program currently playing at the Cinémathèque québécoise called “A History of Eroticism.” For more information about the program check out their website

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.