Maybe it is a deeply twisted rental option, but watching Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane on a video double bill with another new release, Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book, reveals that rare felicity: a thunderously mainstream entertainment and an epicene slice of art-house erotica whose concerns are much the same. Both dive deep into the gender wars with stories about women who barge into traditionally male arenas of combat, art, and sex. Both of their heroines trespass in explicitly physical ways designed to flip out the men around them. But in other respects, these two films have so little in common that it’s a hoot imagining the writhing of Greenaway-loving, cappuccino-sipping aesthetes as they look in vain for irony in gung-ho G.I. Jane. Or, similarly, the jaws of Demi Moore fans thudding to earth in contemplation of Pillow Book‘s aggressively baroque visuals, blase full-frontal male nudity, and stratospheric kink quotient.

Actually, the harder task here will be getting art-house hipoisie to seriously consider G.I. Jane, since The Scarlet Letter, Striptease, and The Juror have established Demi Moore as the stiffest block of Hollywood cheese since Lana Turner’s glory days. But it turns out that the role of Lieut. Jordan O’Neil — chosen by a Ferraro-style senator (Anne Bancroft) to be the first woman to enter the grueling Navy SEALs training program — meshes perfectly with this actress’ steely, humorless persona.

It’s always been hard to buy Moore in “sexy” roles, because her most salient quality — ambition — tends to preclude sensuality. But Jordan is all ramrod conviction, and she understands that if she wants to be accepted as one of the guys, she must become one. So she avoids the easy “women’s” obstacle course the brass has set up for her and moves into the men’s bunkhouse. She shaves her head and trains so intensely she stops getting her period. She casually wraps a towel around her hips during a post-shower conversation with her drill instructor (Viggo Mortensen). And, in G.I. Jane‘s most-debated scene (and real climax), after suffering a prolonged beating at the instructor’s hands, she kicks him in the crotch and tells him to ”suck my d — -.” Point, set.

Clearly director Scott and writers Danielle Alexandra and David Twohy are intrigued by what it takes for a woman to become a warrior in 1990s America. So is Moore — when she rubs her newly shorn pate with a goosey grin, it’s the most likable the actress has seemed since 1984’s No Small Affair. Their answer — that there’s no room in combat units for women who want to act like women — hints at a conservatism that bears fruit when Bancroft’s feminist senator is revealed as a shallow boo-hiss villain. Up until that point, though, Scott creates a tough little drama that’s surprisingly thought provoking.

If you’re not hip to the bizarre confections of Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover; Prospero’s Books), Pillow Book may just provoke head scratching, what with its multiple images, overlapping subtitles, and wide-screen tableaux. But give it a chance and the story grips. Nagiko, a Japanese fashion model (Vivian Wu) has two obsessions: avenging her writer father’s humiliation at the hands of his publisher, and the sensuous feel of a calligraphy brush on her skin. She takes as a lover an Englishman (Ewan McGregor, proving that he does have the heroic, ah, stature to play the young Ben Kenobi in the next Star Wars film). Eventually she becomes the writer and he the canvas — and ultimately the object over which Nagiko and the publisher fight. As our plucky heroine creates an entire series of “books” written on the bodies of pliant men, the movie explores, without ever becoming a tract, how liberating and dangerous it can be for a woman in a macho society to control the “two things in life which are dependable: the delights of the flesh and the delights of literature.”

Greenaway’s long-established fetish for opulent decor means his movie loses some surreal magic on video, but it’s a less brutally foppish, more penetrating work than The Cook, still this director’s best-known film. And toward the end Pillow Book achieves a mystical resolution that’s deeply touching in the way it moves, finally, beyond gender. In G.I. Jane, Jordan O’Neil may become a better man — but Greenaway’s heroine becomes a bigger human being. Point, set, match. G.I. Jane: B Pillow Book: B+

G.I. Jane
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