The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

Peter Greenaway | 2hr 4min

In a dystopian society where citizens are little more than consumers and intellectualism has long gone out of fashion, those who control the distribution of food hold ultimate power. The symbolic parallels Peter Greenaway draws to Margaret Thatcher’s own political reign are thoughtfully painted out within such an elaborately garish setting as this, whereby one restaurant becomes Britain and its obscene, abusive owner is its Prime Minister. He lords over his customers like a tyrant, rubbing their faces in their meals and bullying his subordinates, though perhaps the most disillusioned of them all is his own wife, whose eyes have started turning towards a far more sensitive figure in the dining hall she visits every night with her loathsome husband.

Narratively, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a tightly plotted political allegory in the vein of George Orwell, rendering its complex characters as the archetypes written out in its title and subjugating them to strict, arbitrary power structures. Visually, it is operating on another transcendent level altogether, marking some of the most triumphantly stunning displays of mise-en-scène ever put to film in its ornately curated interiors conforming to a unified Baroque aesthetic. This style is not surprising given Greenaway’s background as a painter, his specific adoration for 15th to 17th century art, and the technical virtuosity of his previous films. Still, there is something particularly tactile about The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover in its evocative staging and camerawork, both maintaining a strong sense of screen direction in the consistent horizontal movements through a restaurant laid out like a gallery where each room is its own striking exhibit. Together, these tableaux effectively form one large Wes Anderson-style diorama, with his rigid parallel tracking shots emphasising the skilful layering of every shot into individual planes moving at independent speeds across the screen like paintings vividly rendered in three-dimensional space, and smoothly transitioning between rooms divided by the black strips of negative space between.

This lays genuine claim to being one of the most beautiful films in history with its meticulous compositions of vibrant colours, and this combined with the formal precision of Greenaway’s parallel tracking shots make for something visually transcendent.

On the far left of this elongated structure is the alleyway leading into its back entrance, lit with neon blue lights revealing a clearly artificial soundstage around the edifice. With such vibrantly expressionistic colours bleeding through the scenery, there is an evident Giallo influence announcing itself here, suggesting a tinge of gaudy horror reminiscent of Suspiria. As the opening scene sees trucks pull up in symmetrical formation to reveal the meat hanging inside though and as gangster Albert Spica makes his grand entrance stripping a man naked and smearing him with dog poo, there is no doubt that this is a Greenaway film, its imagery simultaneously repulsing and enticing its audience with a dangerously handsome allure. Out in these dark exteriors, dogs hungrily feast on the restaurant’s wasted meat like peasants who can’t earn a seat at a table, and Michael Nyman’s score hits sharp, staccato accents on orchestral strings as a Baroque prelude to Greenaway’s cinematic opus.

Clear artifice in Greenaway’s staging and production design, calling back to A Zed and Two Noughts with the emphasis on the giant letters, and carrying on with his trademark symmetry. Out in this exterior alleyway, his vivid neon lighting is distinctly expressionistic.

To the right of the blue-lit alleyway is the kitchen defined by the unnatural green hues shed across its brick walls, pantry, and bench tops, upon which Greenaway’s mess of half-prepared meals, sharp utensils, and carved meats spread out in meticulous arrangements. In long shots he catches two colossal, triangular vents hanging symmetrically above the room as silhouettes, and below the space is filled in with an eclectic range of characters bustling through pulsing lights and plumes of smoke, bringing the room to life through their own bizarre contributions. Working at one benchtop is a short, dumpy cook wearing nothing but white briefs, and underscoring the kitchen’s intricate commotion is a young boy soprano singing a hymnal miserere pulled directly from the Book of Psalms, praying for a spiritual cleansing.

“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity.”

Green lighting spread through the kitchen, cluttered with people and decor. The Wes Anderson influence is immense in these dioramas emphasising specifically themed props.

This also winds up being a key location for Spica’s wife, Georgina, and her newfound lover, Michael, who seek refuge in the claustrophobic pantry to carry out their affair under the protection of the kitchen staff. The sweet refuge they find in each other’s arms is still not entirely secure here though, as even when Spica isn’t trying to sniff them out, Greenaway intercuts their sexual tryst with sharp knives chopping up meats and vegetables, tersely illustrating the kitchen as a dangerous place for any sort of forbidden love given the uncertain loyalty of the gangster’s underlings.

Perhaps it is in the dining hall most of all where Greenaway draws his hardest barrier between the audience and his actors, setting up Spica, Georgina, and the henchmen along a table separating them from the camera. This deep red chamber of unruly patrons may be the singularly most picturesque of all the rooms in this establishment, setting up wildly cluttered tableaux of crudely mannered dinner guests illustrated in stark contrast to the large, Flemish Baroque painting that hangs in the background, The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1616, depicting 17th century Dutch gentry civilly congregating around a feast. It is through a remarkable depth of field that Greenaway is able to capture this gorgeous artwork in great detail as a complement to the drama that unfolds in front of it, and it similarly serves his staging well in catching Georgina and Michael’s silent glances across the room, while Spica’s obnoxious rambling keeps rattling over the top. Around them, Greenaway’s striking crimson hues saturate the carpet, chairs, wine, roses, and velvet curtains in expressionistic patterns, bleeding with passionate lust and violence as the mobster relentlessly bullies anyone who crosses his path, and even those who don’t.

Greenaway indulging in his love for Flemish Baroque painting, hanging this giant artwork up on the wall behind Spica’s table as a historical comparison of civility and culture.
Like Stanley Kubrick in Barry Lyndon, Greenaway uses his staging, colours, lighting, and textures to imitate oil paintings.
Deep focus and burning red colours beautifully weaved through costumes and sets, setting up a dangerous environment in the dining hall.

If the external alleyway in all its dark, chaotic designs represents human’s unhindered brutality, then this entire restaurant could very well represent a spectrum of civility, progressing through the anarchic kitchen, the sophisticated but busy dining hall, and finally arriving at the minimalistic, pure white bathroom on the far right. This is the site of Georgina and Michael’s very first rendezvous away from prying eyes, cleanly set up as a spotless paradise that might almost be a reprieve from the intense colours found elsewhere were it not for the shimmer of angry red light shining in from the dining room whenever the door is thrown open, reminding us of the danger lurking on the other side. Still, for the short time that it stands as a sanctuary from Spica’s ferocity, Nyman’s score shifts away from the harsh Baroque orchestra and operatic soprano associated with other rooms to gently bask in a romantic chamber piece of strings and piano.

Pure white in the bathroom, a clean, spotless paradise where characters pursue privacy as refuge.
But also notice the changing outfits between rooms, matching the colour palettes of their environments – Gaultier’s elegant costume design is as much a part of Greenaway’s formal vision as anything else.

Such extraordinary dedication to these thoroughly curated palettes goes far beyond Greenaway’s décor though, as even the colours of his characters’ costumes subtly alter from room to room to match whatever dominant scheme is expressed through the production design. It is a smart choice to recruit renowned fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier in this department, as even his most famous collaborations with significant stylistic directors such as Pedro Almodóvar and Jean-Pierre Jeunet can’t top the own sartorial elegance on display here, gracefully blending these wealthy characters in with their lush environments.

It should be no surprise that Greenaway goes on to carry out this exacting formal perfectionism through virtually element of his film’s construction. Much like his zoological studies in A Zed and Two Noughts, he comes at the culinary arts with a taxonomical precision, structuring his narrative through the seven different menus assigned to each day of the week, each one framed with detailed compositions of the meals they describe. Standing in direct opposition to such refined culture we find Spica and his boorish affronts, as while his staff and patrons celebrate and partake in elaborate servings of food, he denigrates it all as nothing but the foul end result it becomes after being thoroughly digested.

“How do I care what he ate? It all comes out as shit in the end.”

Menus used as formal markers, cleverly keeping with the food motif to divide the narrative up into separate days.
Red Giallo lighting in the dining hall casting an infernal glow over Spica’s ruthless bullying of his customers.

And yet for all his lack of taste, Spica might just be the most ravenous of them all. Michael Gambon dominates the screen in this role, putting forward a truly monstrous performance while leaving himself barely a second to breathe between lines. Over the course of the week of this narrative, he crudely eats his way through the restaurant as if driven by an endless hunger, all while his resume of violent atrocities keep stacking up with numerous physical abuses exacted upon customers, the hospitalisation of a young boy, and the chilling rape of his own wife. “I’m her husband, not her lover,” he coldly proclaims, separating the two roles into distinct categories and consequently asserting his total domination. There is no doubt about where he sits in the hierarchy of this restaurant, nor his political equivalences given that the only topic he seems well-versed on is the favourite dishes of historical figures such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Churchill – though even then there is some doubt as to whether he is simply making it up as he goes.

As Spica grows more violent, his restaurant becomes emptier and darker, leaving him lonelier than ever in this gorgeous wide shot.

Spica’s anti-intellectualism manifests most of all in his interactions with Michael, who works in a book depository and spends his dinner times perusing novels. “I reckon you read because you got no one to talk to,” the gangster mocks, though upon discovering the affair between his victim and Georgina, his anger unleashes in its full, violent force.

“I’ll kill him, and I’ll eat him!”

Michael Gambon’s vicious, verbal performance belongs among the best of the year and his career, carrying the film through on a forceful wave of wrath and gluttony.

Up to this point Spica has been simultaneously degrading the value of academia and turning food into a weapon he can wield against powerless victims, and with his gruesome vengeance wreaked upon Michael, both effectively culminate in a twisted execution, force feeding the lover pages from his own books until he dies. Greenaway’s indulgences in such macabre murders as this are Hitchcockian in their extravagance, exploring those perverted minds which commit heinous acts and carry little fear of consequences, though of course it would not earn this comparison if there were not at least a tinge of dark humour present. “The French Revolution was easier to swallow than Napoleon,” Spica jokes right after Greenaway notes that the final page stuffed into the lover’s mouth was indeed a chapter on the French Revolution.

Dark irony in Greenaway’s creative murders, killing the bookseller by force feeding him his own books – including a page appropriately titled The French Revolution. Savage political commentary in both direction and writing.

Therein lies the ironic inspiration for Georgina’s own simmering plans of insurrection. Helen Mirren is not as loud as Gambon in this role, but she simmers with complex insecurities, misgivings, and dreams, coming together with Alan Howard’s Michael to represent those educated individuals disenfranchised by Thatcher’s unrefined libertarian ideologies. As Georgina lays next to the lover’s dead body and falls asleep, Greenaway pays Mirren one of the few close-ups of the film, absorbed in her quiet monologue pondering the trauma she has suffered and the delectable food she will eat in the morning, each one a tiny rebellion against her husband’s vulgar dismissal of fine cuisine.

“Coffee and fresh rolls and butter… and marmalade. And… toast.”

The book depository becomes its own sanctuary for the wife and the lover, and also hosts Mirren’s quiet, sensitive monologue in an affecting close-up.

Evidently, food is always on the minds of Greenaway’s characters, and how they treat it says a lot about them as people, and so it is with this ideal that The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, arrives at a denouement even more nauseatingly poetic than Michael’s murder by books. The toppling of Spica as the man at the top of the food chain is not enacted by Georgina alone, but through the collective action of all those he has wronged, with the kitchen staff seizing back the culinary arts as a weapon controlled by the people, not the wealthy. Leading a procession of Spica’s own restaurant staff like a funeral, Georgina serves up a new kind of meal to her husband at gunpoint – Michael’s naked body, served upon a fresh bed of potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, and lemon slices, steaming hot and drenched in a disgustingly warm glaze.

“Try the cock, Albert. It’s a delicacy. And you know where it’s been.”

A symmetrical, funeral-like procession emblematic of this revolution of workers.
Sickening, macabre imagery gorging Spica on his own conquest, bringing him to the physical manifestation of his greed and gluttony.

For the first time, it seems that Spica has had his fill, unable to eat the meal presented to him or accept the physical manifestation of his own voracious desires. The red lights of the dining hall shining on his horrified face no longer look lustful or violent, but as his shakily brings a forkful of human flesh to his mouth, it instead appears entirely demonic, accompanying his psychological torture with an infernal hellish glow. And then at his lowest point, right after the gangster has consumed the sickening product of his victory, Greenaway succinctly ties The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover off with the ultimate indictment of an authoritarian who has finally gorged themselves on their own gluttonous conquest, branding both Spica and Thatcher with a single condemnation that would haunt any political figure forever.

“Cannibal.”

Symmetry thrown off balance by Spica’s dead body, staging his complete defeat beneath the towering crowd of mutineers led by his wife.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is not currently streaming in Australia.

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