Mar 4, 2013

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

About a decade ago, I made the rather grave mistake of watching British auteur Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero's Books (1991) – an audaciously avant-garde, flesh-driven cinematic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest borrowing aesthetic attributes from Manierist paintings and featuring armies of elderly naked folk and a little boy happily swinging back and forth on a swing and urinating into a pool – which proved to be a terribly trying and exceedingly excruciating cinematic experience, so, naturally I have been a bit apprehensive about watching any other films directed by the seemingly pretentious and unpleasantly perverted filmmaker ever since. After hearing nothing but praise about Greenaway’s previous cinematic effort The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), including from braindead gorehounds and anti-arthouse advocates, I decided to give the auteur another chance, which I am most certainly happy I did, as the film proved to be one of the most suavely and sophisticatedly stylized and ideally idiosyncratic works of sordid scatological celluloid that I have ever seen, so much so that I am more than prepared to give Prospero's Books another chance. Probably Greenway’s most famous/infamous film, as well as his most accessible, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a greatly gastronomic themed work of corrupting culinary cinema featuring a farcical approach to food, feces, sploshing, bathroom stall blowjobs, sadomasochism, and cannibalism, among various putrid and pleasing things. Oftentimes described as an allegorical work depicting tyranny and tragedy of Thatcherism in regard to Britannia, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is luckily a work where the viewer need not know, nor care about the sociopolitical subtext to appreciate it as it is a film that is big on aesthetics, character, comedy, and storyline that does not sacrifice cinematic quality for some ‘bigger’ and now-relatively anachronistic message. Featuring Helen Mirren giving bathroom blowjobs, a bookish Jew being forced to eat his own book, a bitchy woman taking a fork to the face, and the torture of a pure as snow and angelic albino boy, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a rare cinematic work that reminds the viewer that black comedy has no bounds as an obsessively obscene yet aesthetically refined film that will make even the most cold and callous of viewers feel oddly overwrought. Doing the seemingly impossible by creating a seamless yet seemingly mismatched marriage between the aesthetic qualities of Baroque and Flemish paintings and thematic moral and sexual libertinism of lavishly lewd literary transgressors like the Marquis de Sade and especially Georges Bataille, Peter Greenaway has cooked a tasty, if not stomach-churning, celluloid meal with The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover; a film that reminds the viewer that sometimes there is a fine line between the physical appearance of chocolate mousse and feces, and high art and low art. 

Things are getting ugly and rather unsanitary at the positively posh and upscale Le Hollandais Restaurant when the owner and head chef Richard Borst aka "The Cook" (Richard Bohringer) isn't able to pay psychotic sadist gangster Alfred Spica aka “The Thief” (Michael Gambon) money he owes. On top of stripping Borst’s clothes off and rubbing dogs turds all over his disrobed body, super sicko Spica – a low-class yet curiously charismatic barbarian who loves gorging his mouth with food just as much he basks in humiliating and torturing people – also takes over his rather refined place of fine dining, thus setting the tone for a film about bad table manners that makes Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul (1982) seem like culinary child’s play by comparison. Naturally, Spica makes a habit of attending Le Hollandais every night with his eccentric and erratic entourage, including his gorgeous and cultivated wife Georgina Spica aka "The Wife" (Helen Mirren) and criminal underlings Mitchel (Tom Roth), Cory (Ciarán Hinds), and Turpin (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), among various other ill-mannered low-lifes and dedicated degenerates of the organized crime kind. A boorish, belligerent, and physically bloated megalomaniac who generally does and says whatever he wants whenever he wants, Alfred is not someone who is used to hearing "no" for an answer, let alone encountering people that have the gall and balls to contradict him, so the last thing he would suspect is that his well bred and seemingly uptight, bookish wife is having an affair with another man right under his nose. Unbeknownst to Alfred – a man who beats and rapes his wife from time to time – his wife Georgina is secretly having a heated love affair with an intelligent and seemingly introverted bookshop owner Michael (Alan Howard) that involves the collaboration of the Cook and his many employees in providing these lovers with sexual sanctuary at the restaurant. While Alfred goes on ridiculous rants about everything, including how close in proximity the vaginal hole and anus is on his wife and how about 60% of the patrons at the restaurant are Jewish, Georgina is getting her ‘groove on’ with Michael in toilet stalls, dirty dish rooms, walk-in refrigerators, and other sanitary and not so sanitary places. Of course, when Alfred finds out about Georgina’s matrimonial indiscretions, he vows to kill and eat Michael, but he only fulfills half his promise, thus his wife makes sure that he keeps his word in what he describes as, “a revenge killing, an affair of the heart,” but what turns into a sick sideshow of the stomach starring a devilishly charismatic gangster turned psychologically-castrated cannibal cuckold.  Indeed, while it is Alfred that has Micheal literally stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey using pages from the bookshop owner's favorite tome, a book on the French Revolution, it is Georgina that makes sure her dead flame is properly dressed and fully cooked, so that her husband can also experience what it is like to have the penetrating bibliophile 'inside' his body.

 As oftentimes described by reviewers of the film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover utilizes eccentric characters, which are essentially walking and talking caricatures of the reasonably complex and calculating sort, as allegorical representations of the following: The Cook = Civil servants, The Thief = Thatcher and her insatiable need for greed and unwavering arrogance, The Wife = Britannia, The Lover = leftist/intellectuals who have the power to seduce, but are too impotent and ill-equipped to put up a worthy fight. Luckily, the film is too steeped in succulently stylized tableaux, character pathology and aesthetic scatology for one to feel like they have been penetrated with a putrid and pretentious political parable of the preposterous pomo sort. While Marco Ferreri’s filmic food farce La Grande Bouffe (1973) aka The Grande Bouffe may make for a bodacious brunch with barrels of boobs, buffets, and belches, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a meticulously prepared three course celluloid meal that totally fulfills without the unwanted side-effects of sentimentalist flatulence and preachy political puffery that is known to result in deleterious diarrhea of the mind and soul. Admittedly, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was specially prepared for those with refined taste for tableaux and iron stomachs for aberrant aestheticism and subversive themes, so if you’re looking for some filmic fast food, stay clear of Greenaway’s celluloid cuisine and head to the dead-end drive thru of Stevie Spielberg or Mickey Bay’s mass-produced fodder. 

-Ty E

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Greenaway's A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) is an excellent next step, if you're interested. Possibly still more cinematically daring than The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Plus, lots of provocations of the bestial variety. Probably, you could get a Soiled Sinema entry out of it, too, I think.