Film Diary: The Cook,.The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989)

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

What do you say about a film as compellingly repellent at this one?

There’s not much in the way of plot – this is a Greenaway film after all – and most of what there is can be gleaned from the title. Yes, there’s a lot of food loaded with symbolism, and naturally there’s Richard the Cook who cooks Significantly, and there’s a love triangle, although as with the Turners one might well ask what’s love got to do with it. On the one hand, Georgina’s relationship with her husband, Albert, a mouthy, uncouth and sadistic gangster who owns the Hollandaise restaurant, is about control and possession. On the other, Georgina’s relationship with Michael, a quiet bookseller who dines at the Hollandaise, is pure lust.

Given that the film opens in the most repulsive way imaginable, with Albert and his goons torturing Richard the Cook in the Hollandaise’s car park, smearing him with dog shit and forcing him to eat it, it’s not surprising that Richard connives at the liaison between Georgina and Michael, and at the terrible act of revenge at the very end.

There’s nothing comfortable about this bleak, Brechtian fable about greed and lust for power. 1989? It couldn’t have anything to do with ten years of life under Thatcher, could it? (Maybe it should go on general release now, as a warning about the spivs who are now in the political ascendance. but then it would probably be misunderstood). It’s not a film for a cosy night in. Roland Barthes drew a distinction between the texts of plaisir, which draw you in to a reassuring bubble and leave you feeling reassured afterwards, and the texts of jouissance, which are the kind of spiky white-knuckle ride that shakes you up and leaves you feeling uncomfortable and wanting to change things. This is definitely in the latter category.

And it all looks as scrumptious as Richard’s cooking. It is surreal and theatrical, moving between four sets which are states of mind. The dining room is a Hieronymous Bosch vision of Hell, where everything is red as blood. The toilets, bizarrely, are Heavenly white and spacious and where all the sex takes place – there’s not a lot of sex but what there is, is erotically explosive. Watch Georgina’s dress, even her cigarettes, change colour as she passes from dinner table to loo. All this set against a haunting Michael Nyman score which comes and goes, swells and fades away to nothing. Repulsive it may be, but it is both beautiful and absolutely rivetting. The ending, which I won’t dwell on here, is gratifying in a way that made me feel very worried about my inner nature.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, what do you say about it. One word: magnificent.


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