Tuesday, April 06, 2010


Vomit, excrement and political subtext for good measure

“In the old days, people used to be named after what they made, didn’t they? Like, erm, Carter if they made carts, Cooper if they made barrels, Thatcher if they made people SICK!”
Alexei Sayle, Alexei Sayle’s Stuff (1988)

By Iain Stott
And The Iron Lady and vomit are never very far away from the text and subtext of Peter Greenaway’s 1989 masterwork. The former of which, along with copious amounts of excrement, nudity, bullying, torture, and cannibalism ensured that the British iconoclast’s film had a tough time with the world’s classifiers and censors. In particular, America’s MPAA, who slapped it with an X rating which, if it had been accepted, would have near as dammit crippled its commercial potential. Instead, it was decided to distribute the film unrated (albeit, with a cautionary note). However, no matter how many buttons Greenaway pushes, there’s very little in the film that one couldn’t see today, 20 years later, on the anniversary of its U.S. opening, in some celebrity reality TV show or other, in which various C list celebs, has-beens, would-bes, and never will-bes demean themselves horribly in the hopes of gaining enough publicity to prolong their ailing (and never more than mediocre) careers for another year or two.

And whilst the public’s tolerance for bodily functions and torture may have changed somewhat over the past two decades, the consumerism, capitalism, and general political climate of the society that Greenaway here satirizes mercilessly has not, unfortunately, despite global financial crisis, changed a great deal at all. Thatcher, Reagan, and Bush may be long gone, but their “greed is good” legacy lives on. And so, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is as sadly relevant today as it has ever been.

The film opens with a scene of scatological horror, which introduces us to The Thief of the title, an excellent-as-ever Michael Gambon, whom we first encounter as he is force-feeding dog excrement to a debtor, whose naked, shit-smeared torso he proceeds to piss on. The scene introduces us to a number of the film’s main themes: humiliation, bullying, food, helplessness, inaction, and bodily functions. And all the while this stomach-churning action occurs, ironically, in the car park of a swanky French restaurant, Le Hollandais; the head chef of which is The Cook of the title (Richard Bohringer).

As the action moves inside of the restaurant, which we soon learn that The Thief has recently acquired, the tone of the evening becomes decidedly more relaxed and jovial if no less menacing. The Thief holds court over his goons and other hangers-on, as fine wines and food are consumed (mostly unappreciatively) in sumptuous surroundings. He discusses food and etiquette, upon which he is often corrected, quite foolhardily, by his Wife (a brave Helen Mirren). And it is with her, as she exchanges furtive glances with a bookish chap at a neighbouring table, who is set to become Her Lover (Alan Howard), that the main action of the film commences.

It is lust at first sight. An interrupted and ever so tentative tryst in the ladies’ lavatory soon leads to ever more adventurous encounters. Aided by The Cook and his staff, over the course of a week or so, the two lovers sneak off to the kitchen between courses for a liberating grope or two. But inevitably this suicidal behaviour could only ever end one way. And so, when The Thief discovers of the infidelitous behaviour of His Wife, who subsequently goes into hiding with Her Lover, he proves that he will stop at nothing to gain vengeance, vowing, impetuously and unthinkingly, to kill and eat his love rival.

A spot of child torture later – a scene that will have the majority of viewers wincing, gagging, and cowering from the screen — and he has his man. And, with torture being his thing, and his having a distinct dislike for all things intellectual, he is soon shoving pages from the Lover’s favourite book (about The French Revolution) down the “Jew’s” throat, eventually and painfully snuffing out his life. But, His Wife herself is soon concocting her own sweet revenge. And… well that would be telling, but suffice to say that it will certainly prove to be rather apt.

Now, from all that, the political allegory should be quite clear, or at least reasonably so: The Thief is Thatcher, although pretty much any political leader or ruling party would fit, no matter what foot they kick with. He leads with an iron fist, mercilessly ignoring the wants, wishes, and needs of those around him; with bourgeois conventions doing a decent job of covering, for the most part, his capitalistic thuggery. He takes what he wants and disposes, messily, of everything that he doesn’t. The Wife, on the other hand, represents the British people (or any people really). She dabbles with and increasingly embraces the left-wing ideologies introduced to her by Her Lover. Ideologies attacked mercilessly by The Thief in much the same way as Thatcher waged her unfathomable war against the trade unions during her tortuous and seemingly endless tenure as Prime Minister. The Lover is representative of the intellectual left, the idealists, the would-be revolutionaries. His courting of the Wife is supported by The Cook, who is representative of the opposition, of (old) Labour. When The Thief crushes the Lover, The Cook aids the Wife in her revenge, essentially enacting a revolution.

But, this being a Peter Greenaway film, the real pleasure is to be found away from the subtext, away from the human and the political. Formally, it is a quite exquisite piece. The images, divorced from their grubby context, have a grand abstract power and playful, seductive exuberance. The camera pans and tracks elegantly from room to room, with each one having its own colour scheme. The neon blue of the car park gives way to the seductive, calming green of the kitchens, which in turn leads to the blood red of the decidedly opulently draped dining room, before finally reaching the clinical white of the toilets. With each room impeccably laid out with consummately detailed production design. Jean-Paul Gaultier’s fantastic costumes, which mirror the clothing worn by the Officers of the St. George Militia of Haarlem, who appear in the Frans Hals painting that sits prominently in the dining room, mirroring the action below, change colour as their wearers move from one room to the next. All the while, the action is underscored by Michael Nyman’s ethereally seductive reworking of his 1985 composition, Memorial.

And that, I think, is what gives the film its lasting appeal, what makes it such a unique experience – the juxtaposing of the elegant with the inelegant, the saintly with the sordid, and the immaculate with the soiled. Quite simply, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a masterpiece.

Iain Stott is an aesthete cum dropout with a fine art background who, when not living his life vicariously through the work of great (and not so great) artists, can be found blogging at The One-Line Review.

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I remember seeing this with a friend (another contributor here) and having such violently divergent reactions. Being a Yank, the political subtext was lost on me at the time, but the outrageousness combined with the fine acting and especially the artistry just wowed me. My friend, on the other hand, was simply disgusted. This is definitely one of those films where I've never found anyone with a middling reaction: You either loved it or you hated it. I was in the former group, though I've really yet to find another Greenaway film that I've cared for much.
I was, and am, that friend.

I hate to say it it...but I've gone from being repulsed (which I was) to being merely blah-ed by it.

Perhaps I've been spoiled by too many hyperbolic diatribes from the boilerplate left to be outraged anymore (the boilerplate right does not make films which deserve the name, and hasn't since the Triumph of Will (in Europe) and the Birth of a Nation (in the US)...in any case...not in MY lifetime...

where was I?

Oh. No longer overwhelmed by the Thief as Thatcher(in disgust or otherwise)...just don't really care...the hammer and tongs approach to theater leaves me cold...subtlety was never a strong suit of the film-makers on the edges anyway (see Michael Moore).

On the other hand...the McMansion approach to life certainly does have its parallels in the Thief's Joie de Morir.
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