THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER
Director of Programming, Austin Film Society
I suppose I have a concern for this extraordinary, beautiful, amazing, exciting, taxonomically brilliant world that we live in, but we keep fucking it up all the time. That’s hardly an original message, but maybe that accounts for my misanthropic attitude toward the characters in my films. At their best, they’re mediocre, and at their worse, at their very worst, they are appalling, evil, horrible people. I can’t really see that changing either.” – Peter Greenaway
At the American premiere of THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER at the Telluride Film Festival (September 1989), some audience members walked out during the opening scene. I have a feeling that Greenaway wanted to get that business over with and be left with a more open-minded audience ready to enter his completely fantastic and horrifying world of gangsterism, brutality, bad manners, pretentiousness, great food, explosive color schemes, adultery in uncomfortable places, and, most of all, boundless evil. He purposely pushed neo-baroque imagery and situations to their highest levels. Drawing on his background as a painter, he composed frames containing contradictory elements of beauty and ugliness, all presented in a stately, grand manner worthy of epic paintings, accompanied by Nyman’s neo-classic score. But within all this pictorial splendor lies a number of themes and proposals to be considered by the viewer. This is a Greenaway film, after all, and true to earlier and later works he takes his encyclopedic knowledge of two millennia of European cultural history and puts various aspects up on the screen for us to flinch from, revel in, and simultaneously ponder.
Unlike his earlier films, which generally shied away from political suggestions, Greenaway is not averse to critiques that suggest with CTW&L he was intent on satirizing Margaret Thatcher’s England, a regime promulgating the rights of only the rich and rising, the avaricious, the gluttonous, the overreaching. That was the era of the British counterpart to Gordon Gecko and America’s equally grotesque 1980s in which “greed was good.” The more repulsed we are by Greenaway’s thuggish “Thief” Albert Spica (voraciously played by Michael Gambon) and his ill-mannered, low-minded cronies, the more we are in line with Greenaway’s disgust with the rampant, unapologetic consumerism of the 1980s, an era of “he who dies with the most toys wins.” Spica gets his riches through robbery and threats, not that much different from hostile takeovers of businesses in the 80s. Ultimately when it comes to people’s livelihoods, jobs, and possessions, there is not that much difference whether a gun or a gold fountain pen is pointed at you threateningly.
But with little or no experience watching Greenaway’s earlier films, some audience members in 1989-1990 were simply offended by the kinds of scenes not seen since Pasolini’s SALO (1975), likewise a satire of the powerful and gross, people who scarcely deserve green meadows and blue skies with fluffy clouds. NPR’s Weekend Edition took a look at CTW&L and unfortunately changed its mind about interviewing Greenaway. For the American release in 1990, the MPAA slapped a box-office-deadly “X” rating on Greenaway’s film, thereby relegating it to only a few art houses and virtually no publicity. The film’s distributor, Miramax – remember that wonderfully adventurous and successful endeavor of the Weinstein Bros? – instead chose to release the film uncut and unrated. That’s how I saw it at the (pre-Alamo) Village Theater on Anderson Lane. I went with my friend Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, who had made the first gay feature film in Mexican history in 1985 and who had suffered outrageous threats and humiliations for being a trailblazer. While I was mesmerized and overjoyed at the audacity and visual beauty (sets and compositions) in Greenaway’s film, Hermosillo inexplicably hated it. So, it is with the highest trepidation (and a bit of cackling glee) that I’m showing you THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER. Just don’t be so angry and disgusted that you don’t come back to future AFS films. There are a lot of intriguing things Greenaway is up to in this film, much more than a simple attempt to shock you.
In a brilliant interview with Greenaway in 1990, Joel Siegel (not so squeamish as NPR) uncovers the “principal concerns” that Greenaway wanted to explore and hopefully convey in his film, up until that time the most linear narrative he had yet made. I will lay these nuggets of information out in the order that Siegel discovered while listening to (more than talking with) Greenaway expound for several hours in a Washington, DC restaurant (appropriately and ironically).
JACOBEAN REVENGE TRAGEDY
Greenaway admits to a fascination with the Jacobean dramatists, the English writers who were late contemporaries of or successors to Shakespeare (1564-1616), in the waning days of Elizabeth I. The Jacobean era signifies the period in which King James VI of Scotland (1566-1625), son of Mary, Queen of Scots, became James I, occupying the English throne upon the death of Elizabeth I (1533-1603). The Jacobean era would last until the King’s death in 1625. Greenaway describes the Jacobean dramatists as having “a sense that the great days of drama, as they saw them, were over, behind them.” Similarly, Greenaway considered the late 20th century the final years of great cinema. He also seemed to think that Elizabeth II was on her way out in 1990, but 21 years later that has not come to pass. You can carry analogies only so far. But the importance of his admiration for the Jacobeans is that they “took tremendous risks” in their writing and staging. The Roman poet and playwright Seneca, who was just being translated into English along with Homer and the Bible – yes, James I is that King James – had likewise taken risks and shown grotesque scenes on stage. So, too, the Jacobeans, who mixed onstage “violence and melancholia.” Taboos were things to explore and shatter before the eyes of English audiences, not to avoid, and they seem to have been successful. It was quite simply a rampantly licentious time of extremes, one which would inevitably lead to the religious crusade of Oliver Cromwell and his army, who would overthrow the monarchy in the mid-17th century.
Inspired by the likes of dramatist John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1629), Greenaway conceived of CTW&L as “the most typical soap-opera drama on one level—a sexual quarrel, arranging of trysting places, adultery starting very much as lust but obviously developing into something better.” Reminding us that we are entering an unreal world of theatrical presentation, Greenaway opens and closes the film with a red curtain, initially pulled aside and then finally dropped back into place two hours later.
It is the scene which is revealed by the opened curtain at the beginning that sends some viewers to the exits. The owner of Le Hollandais Restaurant has failed to pay protection money, so the gangster Albert Spica takes over his establishment, but not before humiliating the poor man in the most awful way. A suggestion: Just keep telling yourself, “Chocolate pudding. Chocolate pudding.” Obviously the pack of alley dogs love the pudding, which is what Greenaway used, so that should set your mind, if not your imagination, at ease with the artifice of that opening scene. The American mobsters of films like GOODFELLAS usually just drove unfortunate people’s businesses into the ground and then set them on fire to collect the insurance payoff. Perhaps just a bit more refined, but the end result is the same – a hostile takeover, with or without chocolate pudding.
The majority of the film takes place during nine consecutive evening meals at the restaurant, each marked by a new menu with garnishes. After Spica becomes the new owner, he forges an insufferable alliance with the perfectionist French chef, Richard. At times it is difficult to determine who is more powerful, the “Cook” (a stand-in for the director) or the “Thief.” Each of these nine nights Spica enters with his seven (mental) dwarves and his long-suffering Georgina, the “Wife.” They are seated in front of Frans Hals’ painting Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard Company (1614). Hals was an artist of the Dutch Golden Age, when Holland was just as rich and powerful as England because of its New World “acquisitions.”
To counterbalance the boorish Spica holding forth at table, Greenaway introduces the “Lover” Michael, a bookish man who seems unperturbed by the unrefined chaos in the restaurant. Soon, glances across the room ignite desire which must be explored by Michael and Georgina. Thus, begins a sequence of agonizingly tense encounters, during which we may be rooting for M&G’s rutting, but which cause almost unbearable terror as the despicable Spica begins suspecting something. When he goes on the prowl searching for Georgina, his “beloved,” we are probably in worse emotional condition than at the beginning of the film. This is true suspense, mainly staged outside the dining room – in the kitchen, the pantries, the freezer, the bathroom, and ultimately in Michael’s book depository. French bedroom farces and Jacobean dramas used similar elements of lust, assignations, cuckolded husbands, and mirthful wives. If but for a few moments, escape from a monstrous husband would be considered worth any price. Once the meetings are rendered impossible, Georgina will have her revenge, in a way perhaps not even imagined in a no-holds-barred Jacobean drama. Greenaway would have to go farther than even they would dare.
As mentioned before, the “vulgar, insensitive, abusive, obscene, sadistic, and murderous” gangster Spica is meant to be totally, unequivocally hated. Not in the cinematic way of Stroheim’s “Man You Love to Hate” in the 1920s, nor the way of gangsters Rico and Scarface in the 30s, or even more recent folks like Tony Soprano, who are sympathetic when bewildered but terrifying when carrying out a murder. After Freud latched onto the American psyche, villains were not so easy to immediately detest. They became more nuanced. But Greenaway wanted no shades of gray when imagining Albert Spica. And actor Michael Gambon assuredly takes Spica beyond redemption into an embodiment of pure evil. Greenaway says of his creation Spica: “He covers everything around him with his slime and his excrement in the most appalling, horrible way. He’s an anti-Semite, fascist, sexist, racist pig who bullies women and tortures children. He has no redeeming features whatsoever.” In 1989 Greenaway had a tyrant like Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu to contemplate while making CTW&L. This weekend brought another embodiment of pure evil to his end, chased down, beaten, summarily executed, and stuck into a freezer in a Misrata mall before being buried in an unmarked grave in a Libyan desert. Spica would have envied such power and such a long reign of terror.
Greenaway is always intent on finding other ways than narrative to structure his films. He admits to distrusting narrative. In fact, he is often downright hostile to it. Consequently, in A ZED AND TWO NOUGHTS (1986) he used the 26 letters of the alphabet to inform his scenes and in DROWNING BY NUMBERS (1988), he employed a system of numbers. In the even earlier THE FALLS (1980), he created 92 mini-narratives, only a few connected, about people in a special telephone directory whose surnames begin with F-a-l-l. For CTW&L he decided to use a system of colors as his organizational method. He studied Isaac Newton’s early investigations of color theories for ideas.
He wanted to use the seven colors of the visible spectrum, but he had trouble with violet/indigo – “a bit too subtle to spend a lot of time building a set around” – so he concentrated on six colors: “blue for the car park; green for the kitchen; red for the restaurant; white for the toilet; yellow for the hospital; and a golden hue for the book depository.” He likes the precedent of 20th century artists divorcing color from “reality” and feeling free to use many different hues and tones for nature, human faces, the sky, and the sea. For those of you who saw the Iranian film, WHITE MEADOWS, earlier this year, you will remember the artist who was purposely blinded because he didn’t paint the water of the lake blue, but saw many colors depending on the time of day. Color can be a very serious thing.
Still not entirely free of standard, cultural associations between colors and emotions, Greenaway describes his use of color in CTW&L: “The cold exterior car park is blue-coded [because] it’s the nether region, furthest away from the center of the whirlpool of action.” He used green in the kitchen as the color of safety, healing, and embracing and adds, “Green represents the mythological jungle where all the food comes from.” The red of the dining room suggests “violence, carnivorousness, blood” and is “where the center of violence happens.” Getting into the emotions of Georgina and Michael, Greenaway emphasized the whiteness of the public bathroom as symbolic of “heaven.” He likes the idea that since white is composed of all colors, the white bathroom becomes the “focal point.”
Once more, by following an unwavering schematic, in this case color coding, he reminds us that his films are artifices and are meant to make us think more than feel. He is a good Brechtian using distancing devices on purpose. Greenaway warns, “Let’s not get completely taken away by manipulative involvement. Use your mind as well as your emotional reactions. The artificiality of the color schemes reminds audiences of this, which is taken even further when Georgina walks from the restaurant to the lavatory and her costume changes color from red to white.”
Greenaway’s style of cerebral, highly intellectual, artificially structured filmmaking is certainly an acquired taste, but well worth taking the time to study and then appreciate. He belongs to a tradition of experimental filmmakers, but he operates on such a grand scale that it is unfortunate too few people warm [probably not the right word] to his works. However, once you start unlocking the secrets of his structures, then his films seem to offer up so many treasures and merit multiple viewings. He is more than generous in discussing his films, so he is not some pretentious “It’s-all-on-the-screen” artiste. Unsurprisingly Vincent Canby of the New York Times, after viewing A ZED AND TWO NOUGHTS, wrote that he would prefer to watch 24 hours of weather reports. That is truly harsh. Politically-minded critics condemn Greenaway for being an aesthete. It seems ridiculous to criticize someone for accomplishing exactly what he/she set out to do. Political critics should simply not bother with his films. Greenaway says simply, “I want to try and create a cinema which obviously is real in the sense that it reproduces the world, but does have, I hope, this very sophisticated multi-layering of metaphorical meaning.” He adds, ”I think we should use all sorts of information of every description.”
He knows that the source of much of the criticism against him for using and referring to European culture and history comes from an anti-intellectual bias on the part of some people, not just in America either. He doesn’t refer to them, but recent history has certainly provided us with a lot of anti-intellectual icons – George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Bachman. We can go back to Dan Quayle and on back to various political leaders of the earlier 20th century. Greenaway would paint his own Margaret Thatcher with the anti-intellectual brush. He sums it up, in a somewhat elitist but pretty accurate way: “My films are based in an area where a lot of people feel social and educational inferiority, but I want to use this material. It enriches the environment, it enriches the fabric of the film, and it enriches our enjoyment of everything. This knowledge is there to be shared, and that’s why my films are very much based on 2,000 years of European culture. Mainly pictorial culture….”
This is a phrase I was unfamiliar with. Have no fear. Greenaway explains that table paintings are just that, paintings of tables, with people seated around them. But there is an obvious compositional dilemma. If there are people seated all the way around or on all four sides of a rectangular table, then the ones in the foreground may very well have their backs to us. Greenaway reminds us that da Vinci solved this logistical problem in The Last Supper by having a long table with nearly all figures on one side and then one at each end, but no one blocking Christ or the disciples. The Dutch painting featured in CTW&L is likewise a table painting. Thus for the actual eating scenes in CTW&L, Greenaway explored different methods of presenting characters seated around a table. By employing a mobile camera, he could have characters on all sides of the table with only occasional blockage of sight lines. This is yet another example of the importance of form in Greenaway’s film. His painter’s eye is always examining placement of people and things within a very controlled setting.
MARGARET THATCHER’S ENGLAND
As mentioned before, Peter Greenaway doesn’t mind critics finding more political possibilities in this film than in his previous ones. He has openly expressed great loathing for Dame Thatcher’s Britain and the materialistic values she embodied and proposed during her time as Prime Minister (1979-1990). He minced no words in lambasting her as “that wretched woman who is raping the country, destroying the welfare state, the health system, mucking up the educational system, and creating havoc everywhere.“ He was disheartened by the primacy of money as the only value in Britain at that time. He saw that education, reading, painting, thinking, and other intellectual/artistic pursuits were all devalued in such a society unless something could be bought and sold. He considers CTW&L his attempt to “say something that would have much more largess about it, that could be appreciated and understood by someone in Sydney or Tierra del Fuego or Addis Ababa.” In a way, this, among other films, could be a cultural ancestor of the present-day “Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Everywhere” movement. With that in mind, maybe the opening scene of CTW&L really suggests what the 1% wish to smear on our faces and make us eat, rather than sit at their table. But I digress and pontificate. Chocolate pudding, chocolate pudding!
By this point in the interview/monologue, Siegel is feeling dazed, if not a little dumb, and Greenaway seems to grasp the effect his intellectual leap-frogging is having, so he “downshifts” into the more familiar realm of a director discussing actors. He actually doesn’t like depending on actors to present his themes. Greenaway is definitely not interested in creating what he calls “psychodrama” or “illustrated novels.” He dislikes the fact that so many films come from literature (novels, stories, or plays). He says something that many will dispute, “If a work is conceived in words, in literary terms, then why try to transform it?” That point-of-view would wipe out a large majority of films, some excellent in their adaptation from printed word to visual compositions, great acting, and bold dialogue. But he is not the first to criticize narrative cinema. That’s fine. We can like both his kind of cinema and the more traditional kind, which keeps evolving anyway.
Only in the final draft of CTW&L did Greenaway even give the characters names, and they corresponded to the actors he hoped to secure for the roles. However, only one of those desired actors actually agreed to take the role offered him – Richard Bohringer became Richard the Cook. Michael Gambon was offered the role of the lover, Michael, but he (fortunately) wanted the role of Albert, which had been turned down by Albert Finney. Helen Mirren, who was still ashamed of having rejected the role immediately grabbed by Isabella Rossellini in David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET (much admired by Greenaway), offered to “redeem herself” by accepting the role of Georgina, turned down by Georgina Hale. Mirren is described by Greenaway as “the high priestess of stage and screen erotica,” an accolade well deserved and often exhibited in countless films, but always with such taste.
However, tastefulness is not a Greenaway enterprise, so actors are always in danger of a kind of cinematic humiliation in his films. With a fearlessness in contemplating decay, death, and decomposition, the director rarely flatters his actors’ bodies with subtle, erotic lighting. Siegel rightly says that the director creates scenes of nakedness, not nudity. Characters are “not revealed but exposed.” Greenaway reminds us how fragile and treacherous bodies can be as they age. Death is a character, not always seen, but certainly right outside the frame. Strangely, with so many violent films in which characters are blown away, a serious, non-melodramatic presentation of death is still a powerful taboo in cinema.
But there is certainly another taboo which Greenaway wanted to explore with CTW&L. In his hands cannibalism becomes a very powerful metaphor: “I wanted to use eating to make some comment about consumer society, to take it to its limits. To suggest that when you’ve finally devoured everything there is to be eaten, you end up eating one another—the whole cannibalistic theory.” Not really Zombie banquets, but conscious, otherwise rational humans crossing the line with the eating of human flesh. He adds: “What I wanted to do was take cannibalism out of the margins and put it right in the center of the table and garnish it with the most expensive French sauces and surround it with beautiful sautéed vegetables and see what would happen—to try and understand the implications of that.” Such a disgusting repast strongly castigates our economy of excess, consumption, and waste. How much more political do critics want Greenaway to be?
Greenaway describes himself as a man of modest appetite and prefers to spend his money and time on other things than eating a sumptuous meal out in a restaurant. He is not terribly interested in the social aspects of eating out, either, since he would prefer to be alone with his own interests and obsessions.
How successful is he in packing so much into this 2-hour film? Comparing himself to Woody Allen who reportedly said that “at best he can realize 30% of his intentions in his films,” Greenaway concedes that he may have reached 50% of his intentions with CTW&L. He liked the 140-minute version of the film best, but had to cut it down to 120 minutes. He lost elements of the relationship between Georgina and the bookish Michael: “I wanted to explain a lot more about how they were attracted to each other, what the attractions were.” Though he might not think so, I believe Greenaway did present enough information to allow us to see the cook and the lover as centered and whole, while the gangster “has no center” and is “totally spineless,” as well as being horrific.
Joel Siegel, “Greenaway by the Numbers,” City Paper, 6 April 1990, in Peter Greenaway Interviews (ed. by Vernon Gras and Marguerite Gras, University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
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