UK / France, 1989
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 14 January 2010
Source Anchor Bay DVD
Though it is by far Peter Greenaway’s most well known film and, for all of the visceral and intellectual challenges it proposes, probably his most approachable, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover remains a difficult film to apprehend. Certainly in the United States, where it is now unavailable on DVD, it is quite literally hard to see, even if the burgeoning borders of its frame were suitable for anything less than the expansive canvas of the cinema screen. But also, in its astonishingly outsized style, its verbosity, and its all-out theatrical assault on the viewer’s senses, Greenaway’s film offers such grand cinematic excess that it is nearly overwhelming. Indeed, in an essay originally published in the Australian media journal Continuum, Robert Sinnerbrink calls the film “[d]ifficult to incorporate, resisting easy digestion,… a transgressive text; one which, in its self-reflexivity and appropriation of historical forms, allows several simultaneous readings.”
Simultaneous readings, and simultaneous reactions—from delectation to indigestion; delight in the pleasures of a visual feast and disgust at its parade of cruelty and the grotesque. Greenaway’s film is a stew of provocations, and its intended effect is as much one of indignant repulsion as it is of satiric stimulation. After all, his narrative model – though he does not adapt a specific text – is the Jacobean Revenge Tragedy, particularly John Ford’s (no, not that John Ford) ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and the titular foursome of Greenaway’s title are often set before the camera with a highly self-conscious theatricality.
The first – and loudest – is Albert Spica, restauranteur, gangster, and embodiment of pure evil, whose manhandling, abuse (physical, verbal, psychological), and astoundingly bad behavior his wife Georgina must perpetually and quietly endure. With his entourage of petty and dimwitted thugs in tow, Spica invades his restaurant every night over the course of the film’s nine evenings, each an increasingly unhinged and violent spectacle in which Albert gorges indiscriminately on gourmet food, loudly lectures his wife and associates on social proprieties of which he himself seemingly has no notion, and appalls and abuses staff and customers alike. Richard, the unfailing equanimous chef, whose elaborate gustatory concoctions make him an artist, is only able to look on with tacit contempt. But Michael, a collector of books who patronizes the restaurant, soon finds a sensory affinity with Georgina – a mutual, refined appreciation for Richard’s cuisine – that propels them on a dangerous love affair just beyond Albert’s field of vision.
Rather unlike Greenaway’s previous films, The Cook, the Thief,… seems to take root in a fairly conventional (and easily discernible) narrative. This is in part because the rigid structuring principles that the director typically uses elaborate and enhance the narrative and its theatricality rather than overwhelming it. This is aided by the baroque, but deeply tragic score by Michael Nyman, which wavers between the mournful, the martial, and the heartwrenchingly tender. But given the vicious, volatile energy of Michael Gambon’s performance as the title thief (and the more subdued, but utterly involving one given by Helen Mirren as Georgina), it is difficult to imagine that Greenaway’s hitherto somewhat fussy formal applications would not themselves fall prey to Spica’s voluble philistine reactions. Instead, rather than pen in the action and violence of Spica’s character through with complex formalism, Greenaway gives him a terrifyingly free reign with an organizational framework that is both more organic and easier to discern: the days of the week (as represented by the restaurant’s daily menu as a kind of intertitle), and an explicit and highly artificial color-coding scheme.
Assisting in this visual coding and structure were Greenaway’s then-habitual production designers Ben van Os and Jan Roelfs, as well as Jean-Paul Gaultier, whose outrageous costumes foreshadow the outfits he created for Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour in 1990 (particularly the black dress with the massive train, both a grid and a spiderweb, that Helen Mirren wears in the film’s final scene). Together, sets and costumes establish a fascinatingly mobile color scheme in which the colors of the characters’ costumes change as they move from one space to another—the blue car-park, the green kitchen, the red restaurant.
This conceit is fully realized in the film thanks to the mastery of cinematographer Sacha Vierny, who conspires with Greenaway to lend the film the color and composition, the proto-cinematic depth of field, and the richly symbolic detail of 17th-century Dutch painting (as referenced by the restaurant’s name, Le Hollandais, and by the large reproduction of Frans Hals’ The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company that hangs over the dining room). Dutch painting’s Golden Age is a major preoccupation in Greenaway’s films, from the bizarre living-Vermeers recreated by the surgeon van Meegeren in A Zed & Two Noughts to the full, voluptuous immersion in Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro universe in Nightwatching, but here it functions as a model for the type of cinema Greenaway means to create: one dictated by character and caricature, as well as buried symbolism, visual metaphor, and double entendre.
Similarly, the color scheme that Greenaway & Co. employs not only serves as an oblique reference to Newton and the seven colors of the light spectrum he identified (and in turn, to the seven days of the week), but also broadcasts both mood and metaphor in a combination of obvious and subtle ways: the blue car-park seems both menacingly chaotic and free of the suffocating luxury of the restaurant; the green kitchen is steamy, vegetable, verdant, and jungle-like; the red restaurant, suggestive of passion and excess, fire and blood; the white toilet seems cold and clinical, its porcelain purity showing up the filth that one might deposit there, but it is also virginal and clean, the site of the lovers’ first tryst. Beyond the orbit of the restaurant exist other possibilities: the brown and gold of Michael’s library hideaway suggest a Garden of Eden, bathed in shimmering chiaroscuro and yet organic. But black is everywhere and inescapable, crowding the corners of the frame with a reminder of mortality like the black food for which Richard charges the most.
The only characters who are even partly immune to this highly stylized color-shifting are Michael and Richard – the lover and the cook – characters whose roles are certain, modest, and not showy or ostentatious, where Albert and his gang’s are pretentious, vulgar, imitative, and nouveau riche. Gaultier’s costuming aside, the most notable sartorial moment of the film is the roughly ten minutes of screentime in which Georgina and Michael are entirely without clothes—secreted away in the kitchen’s labyrinthine pantries and repositories, and later in the archives of Michael’s book depository.
Here, rendered more poignant than in the majority of Greenaway’s other films, is the agony of order and the desire to be free of it, to exist in a world beyond intellectual structures, immersed in a purely sensual world. In its beginning, the love between Georgina and Michael exists beyond language, beyond her designations as “wife” and even his as “lover.” It transcends the false orderliness of Albert’s world, his hilariously over-the-top mockery of polite indignation (“Gawd! Why can’t I ‘ave some bloody quali’y in my associates?” “You’d pee in your pants before you re’ognised a respectable W.C.”), and seeks to exist in a world of purely sensual pleasure. Language is not in itself evil – dialogue becomes an expression of love, an intercourse between lovers – but in the diatribes of Spica (whose name identifies him as a despicable speaker) it becomes another example of wasteful excess, of profligate excretion, of “verbal diarrhea.”
But then this excess can be found in all things, and sensual pleasures, however sweet, can overwhelm and pervert, can cause indigestion, obesity, nausea, and death. In the film, three characters are forcibly overfed: one to the point of death; all to the point of nausea. And this overstuffing reminds us that consumption necessarily entails excretion, too: as Albert indelicately puts it, “What do I care what he ate? It all comes out as shit in the end.” His own mordant and grotesque conflation of the senses, an undiscerning mixing of all forms of sensual pleasure – “stuffing the mouth and feeding the sewers—the pleasures are related, because the naughty bits and the dirty bits are so close together” – stands in opposition to the refinement of taste, the loving sharing of sensual experiences (sexual and gastronomic, but also visual and aural) represented by the two lovers. Albert is in this sense the quintessence of bad taste.
But while Greenaway’s esoteric and highly stylized sensibility would seem to make his film a screed against simple philistinism, with a Cockney working-class clod as the villain, The Cook, the Thief… has more complex targets in mind. Once again, Greenaway is concerned with the oppression of the artist under capitalism, the humiliation and violence suffered by the creative person (here, both the cook and the librarian) beholden to the moneyed classes. (Here is another echoing of 17th century Holland, with respect to its system of proto-capitalist art patronage and often damning social hypocrisies.) And it also vividly and – through Mirren’s performance – heartbreakingly allegorizes the brutal sexual exploitation of women in modern society. Dovetailing with all of these ideas is the specific reading given to it by contemporary British critics: that its invocation of the French Revolution (“I’m cataloguing French history,” says the Lover) is an indictment of the thuggish capitalism of Thatcher’s government, which coddled the rich (by instituting a uniform “Poll Tax” on property that was the same for every individual, regardless of property), exploited the common laborer (by crushing trade unions), and hamstrung artists and intellectuals with Victorian values and prudish social conservatism. (Images of the trial and execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, broadcast on television around the time the film opened in late 1989, suggested still more political allegories on the continent.)
Whatever Greenaway’s explicit political intent, if any, The Cook, the Thief… remains a devilish knot to untangle, one that demands its audience’s stamina as well as its attention. But in a body of work many have described as chilly or elitist, it stands as an exemplary and impassioned film about love and life under siege, an ode to that which is rich and strange in all things, a vision beyond the strictures of conventional art-making that magnifies rather than denies its many sumptuous pleasures. That it is also an unflinching exploration of all those things we wish to avoid – that it never fails to show us violence, not for its glamour, but for its power to humiliate and induce nausea – is a testament to Greenaway’s conviction that art is not an escape from real life, but an experience that allows us to feel (and taste, and smell, and see, and hear) it more deeply. And that sometimes it must be rammed down our throats.
The Draughtsman’s Contract1982
A Zed & Two Noughts1985
The Belly of an Architect1987
Drowning by Numbers1988
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover1989
The Baby of Mâcon1993