Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989, Peter Greenaway)

Quest Status: 727 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #809

What a film to start the new year with... It's hard to think of a movie more unpleasant than Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. From the opening scene, Greenaway seems to be doing his utmost to disgust and upset the viewer. After a graceful tracking shot that works its way up from a basement where mangy dogs chew on bloody bones to a loading dock awash in neon blue, we watch the titular thief, a criminal boss and restaurant owner, subjects a naked client to a sickening humiliation involving dog excrement, presumably as punishment for being late on his payments. This scene seems strategically positioned to weed out any potential viewers who might not have the stomach to stick around for the rest of the film, as nearly every scene that follows is uncomfortable to watch in one way or another - even if it's just the tension felt watching two lovers make love in a restaurant's holding room for dead poultry.

Most of the film takes place in said restaurant, where all four characters listed in the title congregate nightly over the course of about a week. The aforementioned thief is a degenerate named Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) who fancies himself a restaurateur, despite his lack of obvious lack of knowledge about food or anything having to do with polite culture. He ridicules and abuses everyone in sight, including the long-suffering cook Richard (Richard Bohringer), who is the embodiment of the refined gourmet culture that he despises and simultaneously tries to emulate. Albert's wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) - he calls her "Georgie" - shoulders the brunt of his abuse. He openly gropes her at the dinner table, humiliates her in front of his thugs, and mocks her sophisticated taste in food, but becomes murderously jealous when she starts an illicit affair with a fellow diner, a soft-spoken librarian named Michael (Alan Howard).

At the time of its release, during the height of Thatcher-era Britain, many reviewers saw The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover as a bitter critique of her administration's damaging effect on British society. Today, seeing that the memory of Margaret Thatcher isn't fresh in many peoples' minds anymore, especially outside of the UK, contemporary viewers might be more inclined to read The Cook... in the context of a certain American president's destructive effect on our society and the world at large. Either way, Greenaway himself described the film as a political statement, although left it up to viewers to decide how to interpret that statement.

Regardless of how you choose to read the film's barrage of disgusting imagery and indiscriminate cruelty, trying to place the film within a neat allegorical framework is a fool's errand. But it would be just as foolish to disregard Greenaway's bizarro stylistic innovations, which are ultimately more important than the film's allegorical implications. Set in a world where criminals dress in garish costumes that match the Baroque painting hanging on the wall behind them and change depending on the color scheme of a given room, The Cook... always remains firmly outside of the real world. While Greenaway's style had always been painterly, and here that instinct is taken to the utmost extreme, The Cook... is equally theatrical. The dialogue almost sounds like Shakespeare at times - rambling, gaudy and dramatic - with every character other than the four leads acting as mere ciphers for the main characters to play off of. The sets explode with garish colors and form a self-contained world which we are hardly ever allowed to leave. 

But for all Greenaway's artistic flourishes and provocations, the film's final punchline falls flat. Like the final dish itself, the twist is overcooked and unnecessary. It is all too neatly thought out and artificially constructed, like the film's elaborate sets and color-coded visuals. In short, the defiler of culture is put on trial by his victims and forced to eat the fruits of his cruelty, the byproduct of his destruction. No matter what the film's other parallels with real life might be, this is one aspect that would be impossible to draw any real world parallels to. Even if the rest of the film can be read allegorically, it might be more accurate to read the film's grandiose finale as Greenaway's revenge on everything that he hated about humanity. For him, this revenge was clearly an "affair of the heart," the gut-wrenching final destination of a cinematic tour de force that attempts to cram as many of his artistic ambitions as possible into each frame while making the viewer gorge themself on his misanthropic feast.

-- 273 films remaining---

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