“…the clever cook puts unlikely things together”
The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover (1989): directed by Peter Greenaway; written by Peter Greenaway; produced by Pascale Dauman, Daniel Toscan du Plantier, Kees Kasander, Denis Wigman; music by Michael Nyman; cinematography by Sacha Vierny; editing by John Wilson; costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier; distributed by Miramax Films; for a list of nominations and awards, go here.
Opulence. Decadence. Violence. The late Eighties have been likened to the Baroque era in various ways, but English director Peter Greenaway made a more telling connection in The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover: he recreates the era as Jacobean. And that allowed him to get at the underlying ugliness of the period in a highly aestheticized way. He had already created several unique films steeped in his own peculiar vision of cinema—most notably The Draftsman’s Contract (1982) and Drowning by Numbers (1988), and including the extremely off-beat A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)—but with this, his sixth feature film, he got closer to the world we know from other movies, with gangsters and criminals high on our list of villains and anti-heroes. Greenaway’s version of this familiar figure is The Thief, Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), a rude thug, an uncouth kingpin, whose distinguishing characteristic, apart from a sadism derived from the Kray Brothers (or Doug and Dinsdale Piranha), is what he considers to be a discerning palate. He will only dine in the restaurant he owns, where he holds court as a minor tyrant—giving us a glimpse of the style of the many tyrants, major and minor, with which the time was rife.
As Albert, Michael Gambon is simply amazing. As one of those character actors who never gives a bad performance, he’s truly at his best when given a role with some meat to it, as it were. He is such an appalling bully—we first meet him smearing feces all over the face and naked body of someone who dared to cross him—that he takes your breath away. You wonder how anyone—least of all yourself in watching the film—can stand to be in his company. Most of those who can tolerate him are even more jaded and unprincipled than he is—such as his somewhat cretinous henchman Mitchel (a laconic Tim Roth) or another thug played by punk rocker Ian Dury. The exception is His Wife, Georgiana—or as Albert would have it, Georgie—who, despite some comments Albert lets drop about her depraved past, seems, as played with aggrieved patience by the exquisite Helen Mirren in middle-age, quite discriminating and tactful.
Whatever her past was, she’s clearly now a captive audience to the powerful man whose attachment to her defines her life. Soon, Georgiana is absenting herself from wallowing at Albert’s table for longer and longer periods for the sake of dalliances with Her Lover, a book-trader named Michael (Alan Howard), who, from a nearby table, has engaged her in the silent rapprochement of meaningful glances. Indeed, Michael does not speak for the first 50 minutes of the movie, creating a passionate pas de deux between the lovers. Their trysts begin in the antiseptic whiteness of the ladies’ room and soon extend to storage lockers in the restaurant’s expansive kitchen, lorded over by The Cook (Richard Bohringer), a Frenchman who aids and abets them, while trying to please Albert’s jaded tastes with his culinary arts.
Every frame of this film is a tableaux that can, for compositional brilliance, rival any works of the Golden Age of Flemish painting—indeed a great example of the portraiture of the period by Franz Hals adorns the back wall of the restaurant, and Albert and his men at times wear the sashes of the period. Greenaway’s film is as contemporary as the best avant-garde with a foot in the past, exulting in theatricality, detailed excess, and virtuoso tracking-shots. All of Greenaway’s films are highly stylized and entertaining in their somewhat labyrinthine interworking of details and cross-references, but CTHWHL commands a special place in his work in large part because of Michael Nyman’s score and the way Sacha Vierny’s camerawork interacts with it.
Certainly, there are the visual pleasures Greenaway is so adept at constructing—such as color-coding the sets: the bathroom, the dining area, the kitchen, the car park outside the restaurant, the book depository; as well as creating a series of spaces of still-life-like density for the trysts of Georgiana and Michael, featuring nudity as one finds it in Biblical allegories of the fall from Eden or a Boschian inferno. But it’s Nyman’s score, incorporating his composition called Memorial that provides much of the emotional tone and resonance of the film—particularly in brief arias sung by the boy soprano who is a dishwasher in the kitchen as well as the liaison between Richard in the restaurant and the lovers, once the latter have taken refuge in Michael's book sanctuary.
The sense of drama here is operatic, and operates in a world entirely artificial, but constructed with an art that simply beggars most conceptions of film as primarily a visual medium, and, for all that, Greenaway shows that his grasp of cinema is thoroughly theatrical as well—a space where betrayal becomes the road to salvation like a sweet shower after a ride in a truck full of offal. Michael is murdered, stuffed with books, a metaphor for the bodily component of even the most spiritual appetite, but also a grim joke, Jacobean in its ostentatious grotesquerie. The entire film is like that, making us react to the extremes of taste, and ending with a last supper utterly inedible, yet superb in its poetic justice. In the Eighties, only Lynch and Greenaway come close to the idiosyncratic originality of a Fellini or a Buñuel or a Resnais (fitting, since Vierny was the cinematographer on Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad), where thematics dictate the film’s method, and, here, method becomes the message.
Like any allegory, CTHWHL alters with different readings, different viewings. Its pleasures are not only its visual qualities, but the feeling of intellectual challenge: we know we aren't watching a typical film and so have to acclimate ourselves to its Baroque worldview. I admire the film for all the same reasons I admire other Greenaway films, but this film interacts more fully than his others with its period and more meaningfully with an existing genre. And it has as deliberate a meeting of music and image as in the best work of Kubrick or Lynch, and such sublime music!
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