Wednesday, October 21, 2009

1989 Rewind: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

Films concerning food, or featuring food prominently in certain sections, typically work up an appetite in their audiences. Eat Drink Man Woman, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, hell, even Ratatouille have me jotting down plans for what to buy at the store or what type of restaurant I'm going before I'm done watching them. Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover takes place almost exclusively in a restaurant, where the chef is such a master that he toils over the artistic presentation of the food as much as its taste. However, anyone who could come away from Greenaway's picture looking forward to any sort of meal has any iron constitution to be feared and respected.

I'll give Greenaway this: he doesn't pussyfoot around. In the opening scene, the Thief, a gangster named Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) has a man stripped and covered in dog feces to teach him a lesson about making his payments on time. Spica somehow secured himself ownership of a gourmet restaurant, and he believes that by eating there every night he can slip into the upper class by way of imitation. But his boorish behavior, as well as that of his crass crew, belies his hysterically transparent aspirations of social advancement, and Greenaway juxtaposes him with the genuine class and composure of the Wife, Georgina (Helen Mirren). Georgina is detached and bored, though one suspects her seeming patience comes not from being aloof but for catching a beating whenever she dares question her lout of a husband.

As Spica and his gang drive customers away in droves with their behavior, Georgina suffers in silence, until she spots a quiet man reading a book across the dining room. The two engage in an affair without even speaking to one another, making love under Albert's nose and very nearly being caught several times. Though they initially make no emotional connection through words, we can sense what the two see in each other: Georgina finds someone with her dignity and carriage, a gentle soul who gives her comfort in sex. The lover, Michael (Alan Howard), an intellectual bookshop owner who finds the idea of a woman sitting so quietly by such an ogre so interesting that he's drawn to her sexually. After days of engaging in secret sex -- which the Cook (Richard Bohringer) knows about but never remarks upon -- the couple finally gets to properly introduce themselves when Albert notices Michael reading at his usual table and invites -- in his own way -- the man to come to his own table and meet his wife.

The story between the four forms a Rabelaisian view of Thatcherian England. Every night, the same group of thugs comes to terrorize the employees and patrons of the restaurant, and even those of us who don't treat ourselves to the fancier side of cuisine can tell that the massive, ostentatious dishes served to the table are unappealing and serve only to fill a fat stomach (one suspects this is the kitchen's form of rebellion against its new, oppressive, know-nothing overlord). Albert gives the cook, the man he beat and smeared at the start, two trucks filled with meat, but the bitter chef refuses them. So, they stay behind the restaurant, their contents rotting until authorities at last come because the stench is overpowering [as a side note, I wonder if the images of the rotting meat, possibly the most shocking sight in a film that truly gives you your pick of the litter, are a reference to the symbolic rotting food in Roman Polanski's Repulsion; both mark the passage of time as well as the mounting of chaos]. It's a picture of the sickening excess and waste and greed of Thatcher's politics, presented to us with images that become progressively more shocking as the true depths of Albert's mania manifest themselves.

Greenaway is first and foremost a painter, having originally applied to the Walthamstow College of Art with the intent of becoming a muralist, and the influence of art on his film is evident even in its title. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Like the title of a painting, it flatly describes what's in it, but not what it means, what these characters do, how they think, what they represent. The way that Greenaway uses and frames these characters certainly makes use of his artistic knowledge as well, though I confess my shameful lack of knowledge with nearly anything to do with art precludes me from speculating on his influences. If you do know your stuff and/or are simply curious, you can find a marvelous analysis here. However, I can readily see a connection between Greenaway and another artist-cum-director, David Lynch. Greenaway's use of lighting and color recalls Lynch's contemporary, more mainstream artistic usage of color and lighting to evoke moods and ratchet tension (though this film features an astonishing score courtesy of Michael Nyman, supposedly the man who coined the term "minimalism"): occasionally, he floods the screen with so much red light that distinguishing between objects is nearly impossible, as if the frame of a Bergman red fade got stuck in the middle of the fade-out.

One could also draw parallels between Greenaway and Stanley Kubrick. Both have a commanding vision and a keen understanding of cinematography, art design and acting, but they also have a similar sense of detached satire. In 2001, Kubrick defined humanity by our tools, the objects that strip us of our humanity by doing all of our jobs for us. Greenaway's script certainly has moments of dark hilarity, particularly some marvelously foreshadowing -- when Albert learns of the affair, he says he'll kill Michael and eat him, and Georgina asks Michael why he keeps so many books, saying at one point that he can't eat them -- but Greenaway's vision is considerably darker even than the outpourings of Kubrick's twisted mind. Comedian Bill Hicks once fatalistically said, in response to the notion of the beauty of mankind, "We're a virus with shoes." Greenaway largely follows that line of logic for his film: he films so many disgusting scenes of scatological, sexual and violent content to break us down to our essences. He seems to be saying that humans are nothing more than urine, crap, bile, blood and whatever other juices and fluids our bodies secrete.

That anti-humanist sentiment might explain why the actual restaurant draws our attention as much, if not more, than the characters. Each area of La Hollondais has its own specific color scheme: the exterior, where Albert first exercises his wrath and where the meat rots slowly, is dark blue and foreboding. The dining hall, where Albert makes a pig of himself and frequently explodes, is red. The kitchen is a faint green, cooler and more inviting but also faintly sickly. Interestingly, the physical properties of the kitchen warp depending on the overall mood of the concurrent events: at times it is a model of order and cleanliness, a kitchen worthy of a five star restaurant. At others, however, it is a dank, festering display of medieval barbarism choked with great slabs of uncleaned food, with fetid steam rising everywhere as if the place were built upon a giant manhole. Hilariously, the bathroom, a place where one deposits human waste and where Georgina and Michael engage in adulterous sex, is virgin white. One could easily read from the color scheme that the lovers' actions are not sinful because they find respite and joy in one another, but it also clues us into to the director's unflappability concerning our bowel movements and an acknowledgment that they are not dirty because they are a biological necessity.

Having watched The Informers recently, I was struck by the similarity between Greenaway's vision of a society choking itself on excess and the work of Bret Easton Ellis. But Greenaway sets himself apart from Ellis' literary output with a sense of artistry and a firm grasp of satire that Ellis never had, and cinematically no one, not even Christian Bale with his Patrick Bateman, has come within a league of Michael Gambon's terrifying performance as Albert; Albert is so utterly vile that even I, a professed cynic, psychologically could not see him live. He's the sort of character who, if he escaped the movie unpunished, would inspire you to go straight to the top and demand your money back from Greenaway himself. One must also note Helen Mirren's fearless performance, bottling her character's fear until it creates tension simply by manifesting itself, not to mention the bravery of spending so much time nude on a set (Howard also deserves kudos for this).

A number of reviews have agreed, some of them verbatim, that the characters each symbolize a certain aspect of late-'80s England: the Thief stands for Thatcher, her arrogance and her policies that supported mass greed; the Cook is a dutiful laborer who does as he told but grumbles privately against his master; the Lover is the liberal intellectual railing against Thatcher's policies. The Wife, of course, is Britain, who is shackled to the Thief and suffers his abuse, but ultimately triumphs and slays the beast. Who would have guessed that a film featuring excrement, a stabbing, several scenes of torture, a grisly murder and cannibalism could end on an optimistic note?

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