PRINT April 1990


The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

IN PETER GREENAWAY'S NEW FILM, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, the Lover is killed by the thief, and the wife talks to the cook, in whose restaurant most of the action takes place, about his view of her affair. “I saw only what you wanted me to see,” he tells Georgina (Helen Mirren), who replies, “Of course. How could I know it was real unless someone sow?” The “of course” smooths over a contradiction: the remark of the cook, Richard (Richard Bohringer), implies that Georgie is a gatekeeper of information; her reply suggests that there is no information outside the witness. This neatly sums up the dilemma of responding to Greenaway’s film. On the one hand, as auteur, Greenaway seems to control our interpretation, and we in turn feel a need to pin down his intention, to make him a moral agent. On the other, the film is constructed by its viewers, in which case we are talking about a plurality of audiences. What a woman constructs, seeing the heroine punched in the stomach, is different from what a black viewer might construct seeing a black man repeatedly hose down degraded white victims, which no doubt is different from what a child watching a boy being forced to eat his own excised belly button would construct, which is different from what a parent watching the same scene constructs. What does a working-class Londoner make of the villain’s accent, and of the shabby white car in which a scene of family abuse is set, inexplicable in the midst of the thief’s otherwise lavish wealth? And so on. Aware of the way context colors our view, Greenaway makes the hue of a costume change, from red, say, to white, as its wearer passes from dining room to bathroom. And in the bathroom, where cleanliness and dirt coincide, we have the greatest contrast—the red sash of Albert (Michael Gambon), the thief, turns white against his still-black suit.

Yet over and over again, Greenaway manipulates our response, checks it, saying, “Caught you! You know these are arrant cliches. How can you take them seriously?” Or: “You have made a fundamental error of confusing fiction with reality.” Thus we get many warnings not to take film too literally. In that dialogue with the cook, Georgie asks if all lovers act as she and her lover, Michael (Alan Howard), did. Of Richard’s three responses—that his parents did, that lovers in films sometimes do, that lovers in his fantasies do—Georgie rejects the second. Likewise, when Michael compares himself to a character in a movie, he dismisses that possibility for Georgie: “It was only a film.” In general, the emphatic artificiality of Greenaway’s movie tends to operate as a brake on our identification with it. Each frame is an old master painting; curtained portals and flanking attendants make pomp of entrances and exits. The thunder of opening and closing doors echoes lingeringly down the long corridor of the film’s esthetic distance.

But when the angelic kitchen-boy screams in pain as his stomach is cut open, or Georgie keens in grief over Michael’s death, the violence becomes too real to be contained by the film. In fact, the artificiality makes an even less absorbent surface for the extreme violence than naturalism would. Violence becomes even more senseless. Brutalized, we are given no way to assimilate that brutality. What to make, then, of the sense that the film argues for the necessity of violence? The lovers are treated as if guilty. At one point they escape Albert from under his very nose, as Georgie says, in a van full of meat gone so bad it stinks to high heaven. Naked like the fallen Adam and Eve, they are confronted by the decay of the flesh and expelled from the paradise of the restaurant. Hosed down by the black attendant, they take refuge in the book depository where Michael, the gentle bookworm, catalogues tomes on the French Revolution. Restaurant and library, catering to the body and the mind respectively, are the film’s two opposing poles. But the book depository is another paradise from which they will be ejected. What are they guilty of? Naiveté, thinking that love can be “pure.” The book depository’s kitchen and bath are “a bit primitive,” Michael complacently reports, but the view is incredible. Albert murders Michael by making him eat his books; a diet of “view” is insufficient. Deny eating and shifting and you deny life.

Similarly, in the very first shot of the film, the camera “rises above” a view of dogs tearing at meat, climbing slowly up scaffolding to a curtained portal flanked by two waiters. They show us their buttocks, turn, and conduct us through the curtains to the restaurant’s kitchen entrance, its back door, which itself seems to be sunken by a long gradient from the street. The whole narrative is made literally groundless by this “establishing” shot, its mise-en-scéne proven physically ungraspable at the very outset. With the images of dogs and buttocks, Greenaway reminds us that everything above the scatological is a fiction, while saving his own film from that fallacy by treating it as a body he enters from the rear end.

The gentle irony of the pacifist Michael indexing books on one of the bloodiest of revolutions, or being helped into a diamond-patterned coat that recalls a jester’s suit, darkens when we realize that his just revolt against the despotic ruler Albert fails just because it is nonviolent. Georgie eventually triumphs by “sinking” to Albert’s level, accepting his premise that violence is absolute. Dressed in a black-widow outfit with an absurdly long web for a train, she persuades Richard to cook Michael’s body, then makes Albert eat it (as the thief had boasted he would), then shoots him—supported by a crowd of Albert’s other victims. Albert’s savagery has freed her, made her newly independent; in a speech addressed to the dead Michael she concludes that now she will have to get her own breakfast, in other words to fend for herself.

The ascendancy of violence is part of the genre to which this film contributes. Production notes refer to Jacobean drama, Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty,” and so on. Indeed, the static camera recreates the effect of a stage play, as does some of the “business.” In the large kitchen, for instance, Georgie and Michael creep by people who conveniently do not see them—a convention accepted in theater because of the limited space of the stage. Here, too, we accept it, until one of the characters fails to cooperate with the illusion, “sees” the lovers, and informs on them. Then the viewers also feel betrayed—they have been stupidly willing to admire the emperor’s new clothes.

Stage convention exploded, we wonder how much of an excuse the theatrical references are. Greenaway has been accused of presenting paranoid conspiracies of women against men, and transforming Georgie into the black widow at the end fits in with this tendency, although the high camp of her outfit undercuts the paranoia. And her victory and survival go against the grain of revenge-tragedy precedents such as ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, where the poor heroine is the first to go. Greenaway pushes us to say that like the cook—clearly a fastidious artist—he is voyeuristically implicated in the exploitation of a woman’s sexuality but willing to help her enjoy it and then turn the tables on her oppressor. As Roland Barthes says, the author comes back as a guest in his text; he is “inscribed” in it “like one of his characters,” ludically.

The self-conscious allusions to language merely reinforce the occlusion of the film. At the beginning we see letters taken out of vehicles—an O, a B—the script is being assembled before our eyes.

Soon after, the letters are arranged to read “Aspic & Boarst,” then unscrambled once again to become the sign Spica (the thief) & Boarst (the cook). In talking about the film one feels that “speak-a” (Spica) becomes a-speak (aspic), that is, we piece together a reading only to find it eating its own tail. Attempts to “get somewhere” are glazed over by circularity, suspended in a gluey immobility. Michael eats his books, Albert eats his words. In eating Michael, who is heavily glazed and metaphorically cold because he is a dish of revenge, Albert Spica eats himself (Aspic). The mind gives up the chase, too weary to elucidate the connections. Such somersaults may seem defensively evasive to the film’s plural audience. Restless thoughts of arraignment and defense are not put to rest in conceptual cul-de-sacs. This is our contemporary moment: in relation to the film’s legerdemain we are at once the magician and the assistant—our head watches as our hand saws our body in half. We know the trick; we worry for our safety. And, as audience, we buy the illusion and fret about being gulled. The magician is weighted with ennui, the assistant with frustrated ambitions and just grievances. The audience has bills to pay, family dramas to cure, and—as they used to say in old-fashioned books—hopes, dreams, and fears.

Jeanne Silverthorne is an artist and writer who lives in New York.