Film: Spot the male chauvinist pig

81/2 Women (15) Peter Greenaway; 120 mins The Limey (18) Steven Soderbergh; 89 mins
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The Independent Culture
Like The Thin Man (who was actually the victim, not the detective, in the original film of the long-running Thin Man series and thus never reappeared in subsequent episodes) and The Pink Panther (the name of a priceless diamond which again featured only in the first of the cycle), 81/2 is one of those titles whose meaning has got lost in the shuffle of time. In fact, the film, whose protagonist was a film maker afflicted with what might be called "director's block", was titled 81/2 because, by Fellini's reckoning, it was his own eight-and-a-halfth production. He had previously made seven features and a couple of shorts, each of the shorts counting as a quarter.

In Peter Greenaway's 81/2 Women, a recently widowed, inconsolably grieving tycoon (John Standing) and his son (Matthew Delamere) set up a harem in a Genevan chateau on the model of that in Fellini's film. Eight of the women form a collection of classic male fantasies of stereotyped femininity: the whore, the nun, the sexy equestrienne, etc. And the half? She is, wait for it, a midget. That should give you an inkling of the taste and subtlety of this most literal-minded of directors. Greenaway has in the past cleverly contrived to conceal his misogyny beneath a veneer of misanthropy - where better to hide a tree, mused Chesterton's Father Brown, than in a forest? and where better to hide misogyny than behind misanthropy? - but in 81/2 Women it's naked and, apparently, unashamed.

The film is a horror. There's always been something missing from even the best of Greenaway's work, and now, finally, I realise what it is: the cinema itself. That 81/2 Women is atrociously acted comes as no surprise. Greenaway may, for all I know, enjoy many a complex and satisfying relationship in his private life but he's patently never had any gift for communicating with his fellow human beings on a film set. This time around, however, one is even more taken aback by the chi-chi banality of the visuals (the film's cinematographer, the once-great Sacha Vierny, is 80 and his eye is no longer what it was), by the stilted quality of the dialogue and, above all, by the stupefying limpness of the pacing (the plot takes an eternity just to get going).

The hooting that greeted the film at this year's Cannes Festival must have been music to the ears of Greenaway and his producer, for it gave the impression that there was still something at stake, aesthetically and thematically, in his cinema, that it still had the capacity to, as they say, divide audiences. 81/2 Women won't divide audiences. Its director has a famously numerological cast of mind, so no one ought to know better than he that you can't divide zero. And even the fact that it's also demeaning to both male and female performers - Toni Collette, a fine actress, is required not merely to appear nude but with a shaven pubis - is of scant consequence, given the complete bankruptcy of ambition on every level. If Fellini's film was about a terminally stalled artist, Greenaway's is by one.

Steven Soderbergh's The Limey is seriously flawed and, I suppose, pretty minor, but, compared to 81/2 Women, it feels like a masterpiece. An ageing Terence Stamp plays Dave, an East End tea-leaf, as he himself would put it (it's rhyming slang for "thief"). Only just released from a lengthy prison stretch in England, he flies out to Los Angeles to investigate his daughter's death. That death was recorded as an accident but, as she had been involved with a shady rock music impresario, Terry (who is played by a matchingly ageing Peter Fonda), and as Dave's natural bent is in any case to think the worst, he's convinced it was murder.

Soderbergh, whose best-known film is probably still his very first, Sex, Lies and Videotape, is a curiously undistinctive director whose work tends nevertheless to be full of ideas. The problem is that these ideas are not infallibly good. The Limey, for example, is quite unnecessarily tricksy, especially during a trying first half-hour, when the director adopts a fragmented editing style - one more suited, frankly, to the trailer of a film than to the film itself - which only succeeds in getting in the way of the spectator's comprehension of what's going on. And even if psychologically plausible, the climactic irony (which I won't divulge here) is laid on so thick as to be almost an insult to the intelligence.

But he also had three terrific ideas, which is three more than most films can claim. The first was to cast Stamp and Fonda, those two shop-worn icons of the 1960s, and let his camera range at its leisure over the abrasions of their now movingly corroded faces. The second was to saddle Stamp with a deliriously old-fangled Cockney idiom - his dialogue is all "cop a butchers" and "me old china plate" (meaning "mate") and "a right load of wallies" - of which none of the LA low-lifers whom he encounters can make head or tail. And the third, and best, was to borrow footage from Ken Loach's Poor Cow - which featured the orchidaceous young Stamp of three decades ago - when flashing back to Dave's earlier years. It's an incredibly poignant conceit (Truffaut tried to pull off a similar trick with Jean-Pierre Leaud in L'Amour en fuite, the last of the Antoine Doinel cycle, but lazily blew it) for which much else can be forgiven.

81/2 Women and The Limey. The paradox is that it takes a lot to destroy one's faith in the cinema but a lot less to restore it.

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