In a stunning example of artistic bravery, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, directed by Peter Greenaway, launches a major assault on the senses. By taking bold strides, in terms of visual design, story construction, and the daring of his performers, Greenaway has elevated the potentially exploitative nature of the movie into the realm of art.
Spica (Michael Gambon), a nasty thug, is the manager of Richard’s (Richard Bohringer) restaurant. Spica is monstrous to the staff and vicious to the patrons, but he saves the brunt of his ire for Georgina, his wife (Helen Mirren), beating and humiliating her for amusement. Georgina finds solace in the arms of her lover (Alan Howard), an intellectual who can meet all of her needs.
The impassioned boldness of this relationship cannot be understated, and the actors should be commended for bravery in taking these roles. Indeed, the casting raises the graphic sexuality from the level of titillating to that of intellectually satisfying. As Mirren simulates fellatio with Howard, her wang-chugging is an expression of deep desires for freedom from her suffocating relationship with Gambon.
But the most profound elements of interest are the secondary details. Elements that may seem inscrutable, (or even entirely irrelevant), at first glance, but which imbue the text with so much greater meaning by their mere presence. When we see Spica outside the restaurant, he is surrounded by stray dogs that nip and beg for scraps – the vicious detritus of his capitalistic excess. Within the restaurant, Greenaway plays games with color and costume, subtly altering the characters’ looks as they move from room to room. There is the man in the kitchen who never wears a shirt, because…devotion to his work outstrips his desire to improve his financial state. And the spiky-haired blonde boy who sings in a piercing falsetto for no reason at all, because…because…
Aw, screw it. I can’t keep this up. With its insipid social commentary, CTWL is a pretentious mishmash of incredibly stupid ideas fixed to a banal, EC comics-inspired plot. If Greenaway were Roger Corman, the movie would be dismissed roundly as drive-in trash. But he’s a British director, so it must be ‘art.’
During the first forty-five minutes, only Gambon has a significant line of dialogue, so when the rest of the cast opens up, the effect is off. We are distanced from the characters that this kind of movie needs us to identify with – as if the mere fact that Mirren shows her biddies would be enough to put us on her side. Spica is a disgusting boor, but who cares? The people he is nasty to aren’t developed as anything more than weird props that happen to be alive.
Take the singing boy (please). He’s not a character, but a nagging little plotpoint/cipher who serves as a sort of automatic identifier: Oh look, how horrid – Spica is being nasty to him. Well, if this little toad came to me with his skin-peeling falsetto about washing up, I’d force him to eat his buttons, too, and jam a gun down his throat.
What is particularly stupid about this movie is how it seeks to inform the bland material with a sort of empty-minded allegory, to make everything more ‘meaningful.’ See, the thief is a capitalist pig, the cook a poor, hard-working proletariat, and the lover an intellectual who tempts the wife into greater enlightenment… Commie bullcrap. It makes every scene a kind of tedious guessing game: What does the shirtless cook represent? Why are the dogs always out in the street with Spica? How come Mirren can’t hire a trainer to get rid of the droop in her ass?
Alright, that was nasty. But read the chef’s (paraphrased) dialogue:
People want to be reminded of death. When they eat black foods, it is as if they are saying, ‘Death, I am eating you.’
I mean, for Chrissakes, how much do I have to take?