The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Greenaway; 1989)
Prior to this, my only experience of Peter Greenaway had been The Draughtsman’s Contract which was a cerebrally invigorating experience that I admired muchly. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover seems to exist on another emotional plain completely, however? It’s so crass, so savage and so vulgar… and yet at the same time there’s a level of sophistication here that makes the film as intellectually stimulating as Draughtsman’s though Greenaway’s ability to weave in a vicious thread of coarse black humour has the effect of making this a more thoroughly enjoyable experience than the earlier film, imo. Still, like Draughtsman’s, I can’t help but feel that there’s a lot that I missed or failed to comprehend on initial viewing.
I pretty much read this as a conflict between consumerism/capitalism vs. the arts, with Albert (notably entitled The Thief) representing the former and Richard (The Cook) and, to a lesser extent, Michael (The Lover) representing the latter. On a more self-reflexive level, perhaps The Thief could be seen as representing movie moguls and The Cook could be seen as film director? Certainly, the latter’s confessed voyeurism later on could be seen to reflect this… as could The Thief’s conservative palate… except that I’m not quite sure if that’s what Greenaway intended. Either way, the basic point is that The Thief = bad. His is a personality that enforces the submission of others, and he himself is the ultimate consumer, shamelessly feasting like a pig on the refined delicacies/artistry of The Cook. Greenaway’s contempt for consumerism is made more than evident through the actions of The Thief – a man who forces others to eat dog excrement, rapes his own wife and sticks a fork into the face of a relative stranger. Perhaps the film’s most terrifying scene is when The Thief forces a young choirboy to eat his own buttons before slicing his belly -button – it’s probably the film’s pre-eminent example of the corruption of capitalism violently destroying that which is innocent and pure. In terms of the destruction of the arts, he attempts to force cheap cutlery and designs (the flashing sign, “more gold” for the interiors) upon The Cook. And in the opening scene, we’re treated to an introduction where curtains are opened (invoking theatre, art) to reveal the invasion of giant trucks (a symbol of capitalism?) upon the stage.
Greenaway is too sharp to allow The Thief to be a one-dimensional force of destruction, however. To this end, he directs Michael Gambon to an attractively boisterous performance. As The Thief holds court at the centre of Le Hollandais he spouts all sorts of jargon as if he were obscenity’s answer to Shakespeare – and this dialogue really is quite unlike anything I’ve heard before… I’d post a few examples, were it not for the fact that much of its success is due to Gambon’s wicked delivery. Greenaway makes it easy to deplore The Thief, but it’s difficult not to enjoy his theatricality. Still, it’s to the director’s credit that this larger-than-life character doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the film. The constantly tracking camera ensures this, refusing to align us with any one character’s point of view. If, at film’s end, we find ourselves rooting for Georgina (The Wife) it’s purely down to the sympathy she inherits with her role as abused wife. Her sex with The Lover seems more about sheer escapism from the destructive Thief, than passion or romance. Their meetings in various spaces in the kitchen set up an enticing link between sex and food (or, if we’re likening The Cook to an artist, then perhaps art? Or the artist’s thought process?), and their final moments of comfort in the book depository surely suggests that true romance can only thrive in the ream of art + literature or some such thing?!
It’s impossible to discuss The Cook… without mentioning Greenaway’s mise-en-scène. Lavish, extravagant, opulent… you get the idea. Everything is bold and large, from the ridiculously spacious kitchen to the towering ceilings of the book depository. There’s also a curious colour code: the outside courtyard is dominated by blues, the kitchen by greens, the restaurant itself by reds, and the restrooms by whites. Moreover, in the restaurant itself hangs a giant painting as the diners relish the Cook’s gourmet meals – yet again emphasising the link between art and consumption (art watches consumers consume art?!) Even more quaint is the way in which all the characters’ costumes change according to their surroundings – all of them that is, except for The Lover who almost always remains dressed in brown (in another example of Greenaway’s delicious humour, even when served as a revenge dish at the end he’s still brown.) Perhaps the director is trying to equate The Lover and what he represents (art? or perhaps more simply, love?) as the one constant regardless of setting? It’s an interesting idea to consider but honestly, I’m not really sure about it. All I do know is that Greenaway successfully negotiates a duality between his overlty theatrical sets (not to mention Gambon’s performance and Michael Nyman’s grand compositions on the soundtrack) and the cinematic qualities that the medium demands – we view the events as if sitting in a theatre, except this is a stage that seemingly neverends with the camera seamlessly traversing across walls and scenes to create something more akin to a vast canvas than a mere stage performance. And indeed, at some points Greenaway’s compositions look as if they’re straight out of an old painting. It makes for a unique viewing experience but again… I see it, I note it, but somewhere along the line I’m sure I’ve missed the depth?
My lack of familiarity with Greenaway’s concerns does little to diminish my appreciation of this film, however. And if I didn’t enjoy the rest of the film enough, the finale alone would have been enough to buy my love. Possibly the most savage and gruesome moment in a film that’s brimming with them, it’s also the film’s most satisfying metaphor. Aside from providing The Wife with her well-earned revenge, it’s serves as the pinnacle of decadence: after the greedy (read: the Thief) have consumed everything else, what’s left to consume but each other? Even The Thief stalls upon this final act, and is thus unable to eat his own words (unlike The Lover?), subsequently rendering him speechless – note how a lot of the scene’s eeriness is due to the foul-mouthed Thief’s silence. The camera cuts to The Wife, glaring down towards the Thief (but also implicating the audience) who chillingly accuses us (also consumers?): “cannibal!” And then the curtains are drawn, the credits roll, and the performance is over. But like, OMG what a performance! If any scholars/enthusiasts of either Greenaway or this film would care to enlighten me with some more eloquent thoughts I’d very much appreciate it. TA in advance!