“Try the cock, Albert. It’s a delicacy, and you know where it’s been.” —Helen Mirren, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover
Peter Greenaway has always been a man out of time, an arch classicist who’s nonetheless forward-thinking about what cinema can do. Of the objects of his contempt—and there are so many, you should presume you are one of them—the staid refusal of cinema to evolve beyond mere storytelling is foremost among them. What’s the point of having this relatively new medium if so few are interested in advancing it? (Typical quote, after declaring Martin Scorsese “old-fashioned” and comparing him to D.W. Griffith: “We’re still illustrating Jane Austen novels—there are 41 films of Jane Austen novels in the world. What a waste of time.”) For Greenaway, this restlessness can be a kind of perversion: After his 1989 arthouse sensation The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover brought him cachet, he followed it up with 1991’s Prospero’s Books, an adaptation of The Tempest so choked with cinematic techniques and gimmicks—animation, mime, opera, and a dense assortment of frames within frames he called paintbox images—that moviegoers were given pamphlets to help them process the visual overload. And that, in a nutshell, is the primary frustration with Greenaway, whose work can sometimes seem purposefully obscurantist rather than merely ambitious. If the dum-dums in the audience can’t puzzle through multiple screens of radically deconstructed Shakespeare, fuck ’em.
But where Prospero’s Books represented a tipping point in Greenaway’s career, as he broke sharply with an audience that had finally embraced him, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover is the apotheosis of his ’80s work, which at its best employed gamesmanship and satire to savagely entertaining ends. While Greenaway could rightfully be accused, at times, of being a bloodless schoolmarm, Cook, Thief infuses its withering class comedy with moments of real sensuality and emotion, like green shoots poking through arid ground. Here’s a film that opens with a man being smeared in excrement and closes with an even more horrifying act of revenge, yet it’s fevered, passionate, and occasionally erotic, at least by Greenaway standards. It’s a film awash in the color red, full of blood, sex, and rage, the rare Greenaway that feels alive as more than a formal or semiotic exercise. You may even catch him storytelling here and there.
Opening on a restaurant exterior that doesn’t hide the fact that it’s a massive soundstage—the scaffolding that’s propping up the sets is laid completely bare—Cook, Thief is like a proto-Dogville, both in its Brechtian conceit of breaking the fourth wall and a premise that functions as a sweeping social metaphor. Greenaway’s vision of humanity is more optimistic than Lars von Trier’s, if only because his characters aren’t universally irredeemable, but both filmmakers are essentially reducing people to representative types in order to make larger points—Greenaway about tyranny, von Trier about democracy. It’s part of Greenaway’s strategy, then, to stage the action on sets that are plainly artificial or to call attention to the soundtrack by, say, casting the young soprano in Michael Nyman’s score as a dishwasher, or dubbing barking noises over the chalk outline of a dog. Naturalism is an enemy both of satire and metaphor, so Greenaway presses theatricality on every front, from a set that sprawls out over a vast horizontal plane to a performance by Michael Gambon that’s pitched to an audience beyond his assemblage of lackeys.
Gambon stars as Albert Spica, a marauding gangster who takes over the Le Hollandais, a lavishly appointed French restaurant where the elite hold court. Albert is taking over operations, and his lack of expertise on the business doesn’t prevent him from informing the cook (Richard Bohringer) that his new proteins are sitting in trucks outside the place. (The cook would rather choose his own ingredients, and his refusal to compromise on that front leads to disgusting consequences later.) Mostly, Albert uses the restaurant as a place to hold court with his sniveling goons, who happily guffaw at observations like “I think those Ethiopians enjoy starving. Keeps them thin and graceful.” Helen Mirren plays Albert’s longsuffering wife Georgina, whose marriage has yielded multiple miscarriages and the nightly abuse Albert dishes out at her expense. Georgina furtively begins an affair with Michael (Alan Howard), an ineffectual bookworm who joins her for high-risk bathroom and kitchen rendezvous while the oblivious Albert holds court.
After Georgina and Michael inevitably get caught, the film takes a startling turn toward the macabre, chasing a particularly gruesome (and bluntly ironic) murder with haute cuisine cannibalism. It’s the ideal Greenaway conceit: He’s grafting the classic form of Jacobean revenge tragedy—a genre known for fusing satire with outrageous violence—to a modern, politically charged metaphor for the Thatcher years. And the old and the new are also reflected in the style, which combines rigid theatricality with boldly experimental use of color and space, all raised to a fevered intensity that courts mere silliness, like a Julie Taymor project run amok. (In fact, Taymor’s Titus has much in common with Cook, Thief—both are brazen updates of centuries-old revenge tragedies, but Taymor’s film often veers wildly off-course.) Yet for a director who tends to labor toward chilly aesthetic ends, Greenaway brings real heat to Cook, Thief, a film charged with both righteous fury and an unlikely sensuality.
As Albert, Gambon dominates the film, as he should, personifying the tyrant’s arrogance and cruelty and his ability to assert his will over everyone in his midst, even when they clearly resent him. (Albert’s henchmen aren’t around for his downfall, but I imagine a “Ding dong, the witch is dead” scenario.) He spouts off about food and geopolitics, offering wisdom gained by gorging voraciously on the former and informing the latter with a blanket, ignorant contempt for “the other.” But Georgina and Michael’s relationship holds Albert’s calculated brutality in sharp relief. It’s an affair that starts wordlessly and persists in every available space around the restaurant, in spite of the dire consequences of getting caught. It helps that Mirren knows her way around all matters erotic—even in her mid-60s, having just played Queen Elizabeth II, she lit up the tabloids—but Greenaway conceives their couplings as earthy and innocent. They’re Adam and Eve on sensual expeditions, frequently entirely naked, even when expelled from paradise and forced to walk hand-in-hand into a truck full of rotten meat. Most corners of Greenaway’s massive set are darkened with menace, but the lovers find the few that aren’t, and it’s crucial to the film’s impact that their pleasure registers as strongly as possible.
Those who lived in England during the Thatcher years are better equipped than I to unpack the particulars of Greenaway’s allegory: Thatcher as “The Thief,” “The Cook” and his staff as the downtrodden commoner, “His Wife” as Mother England, and “Her Lover” as the feckless intellectual class. Really, the politics of Cook, Thief could probably be broadly applied to many tyrannical administrations, at least in those democracies that occasionally elect a power-hungry boor into high office. Any specific references to Thatcher quotes or policies escaped my notice entirely. But satires like this one are intended as Swiftian broadsides, and on that score, Greenaway registers his disgust with a thunderous belch that would impress Albert Spica himself.
Conception is one thing, execution another, and Greenaway’s collaborators on Cook, Thief give it a crystalline sharpness that sets it apart from his other narrative films, even those that are more ambitious and visually dense. His cinematographer, Sacha Vierny, once a lenser for Greenaway’s cinematic hero Alain Resnais on films like Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year At Marienbad, covers the soundstage in impeccable dolly shots and painterly lighting schemes. His composer, Michael Nyman, brings a baroque grandeur to a score that pulses with the hypnotic repetition of Philip Glass at his best. And the costumes, by Jean-Paul Gaultier, are suitably avant-garde and suggestive of wealth and power, particularly Mirren’s final gown, so imperious that it takes two servants to manage the train.
Cook, Thief’s indelicacy doesn’t always serve it well: The death-by-page-stuffing is the most thuddingly ironic of its kind outside the death-by-bookcase in Howards End, and at times, Gambon’s sadistic glee isn’t far removed from Greenaway’s own. But these are minor consequences for a film this artistically and politically charged. Greenaway creates a cinematic universe that’s dense in allusion and metaphor—and dotted, as always, with reference points that predate the infant medium of film—but Cook, Thief is the rare case in his filmography where that doesn’t put the audience at a distance. With the Prime Minister on her way out the door, he serves up a final meal so vividly nasty, you can almost taste the prairie oysters.