Let’s just start by acknowledging that Peter Greenaway‘s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” is not for everyone. And that’s okay.
The bare bones of the plot border on the banal: a love triangle between a cruel, small-time gangster, his abused wife, and her lover, a bookish gourmand. But, on its release in 1989, it made many audiences uncomfortable, so much so that some of them left the theater before the film was over.
It was denied an R-rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and Miramax chose to release it unrated (rather than with an X-rating, which is inevitably associated with hardcore porn). There’s a fair amount of equal opportunity full-frontal nudity. The Thief beats his Wife (and more, mercifully off-screen). The Thief also cuts out a kitchen boy’s belly button. More likely to have offended the audience in an art-house theater—the only places Greenaway’s films screen—were the distasteful episodes, including smearing a beaten, naked man with shit, the naked lovers escaping in a van full of really rancid meat, and ending with the just desserts served in the Grand Guignol ending, which I shan’t ruin.
However, one look at the elaborate, color-coded sets and Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes undermines any notion that the film means to glorify the violence. Greenaway’s world is intense but artificial, so much so that it begins and ends with the opening and closing of red theater curtains.
More importantly, the violence is all perpetrated by a character, Albert the Thief, utterly lacking in class. Everything Albert does, everything he says, even the way he eats, is tasteless. The New Yorker‘s criticism that “Cook, Thief” is a “movie whose object is to push us to the ground and kick art in our faces” is more to the point, though still (quite) wide of the mark.
Where’s the Beef?
The disgust it inspired in some reviewers notwithstanding, “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” is a movie about the intersection (or lack therof) of taste and class, much of it conveyed via food. The importance of food is first highlighted, of course, in the title. Despite the fact that the Cook (Richard Bohringer) does not figure in the love triangle, he is the first character named. In a sense, the story would not be possible without him. With the exception of three later scenes, the entire film takes place in his restaurant, Le Hollandais.
Food as Politics
Food is not only central to the film in that the action takes place in the restaurant’s kitchen, dining room, and even its toilet. The set design also centers on increasingly florid arrangements of food, which echo those in still lifes from the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Still life’s “whole subject,” according to art critic Norman Bryson, “is nothing else but the life of people among material things,” and the objects depicted in still lifes marked the new wealth of a class that could afford wildly expensive out-of-season flowers and imported fruits.
“Cook, Thief” is Greenaway’s scathing commentary on Margaret Thatcher’s politics in 1980s Britain, and, as in the Golden Age Dutch still lifes his sets emulate, food is a marker of taste and class.
Albert Spica (a glorious Michael Gambon) is the vulgar and cruel small-time gangster who takes over Le Hollandais, his favorite, and very high-end, restaurant. He, his wife (the always-brilliant Helen Mirren), and his minions, including Tim Roth and Ciarán Hinds, dine there every night. One night, his humiliated and abused wife and another regular diner, bookworm Michael (Alan Howard), catch each other’s eyes and begin a passionate affair. (There isn’t space here to elaborate on the acting, but it is superb all around.)
Like a good Thatcherite, the virulently anti-intellectual Albert sees no value but exchange value in either people or things (making the language of still lifes a particularly apt metaphor). It is how a Thief measures his world. Albert is low-class not because he’s Cockney, but because he thinks the value of things is measured by their price tag. Class here is a way of looking at the world, not a matter of birth.
The other major characters, Georgina, Albert’s wife, her lover, Michael, and Robert, the cook, look at the world very differently. They take pleasure in beauty, in food, in art (books, fashion). The care they take with those things extends to the people with whom they interact. Robert, for example, takes Albert’s shit-smeared victim into his kitchen, washing, warming, and feeding him. And the environment he creates (despite Albert’s constant undermining) allows Michael and Georgina’s love to blossom. These characters have class because they have good taste.
Albert repeatedly attempts to out-class others by parading his allegedly upper-class taste (viz. his palate and his beautiful, cultivated wife). Since we first meet him peeing on an uncooperative recipient of his “protection,” we know he’s vulgar. It’s not much of a surprise to discover he is a also a philistine—he doesn’t appreciate the fine food; he beats and sexually assaults his beautiful wife; and he ignorantly mangles his French, a series of offenses the film suggests are interrelated, each an example of his bad taste.
Le Hollandais, as one of Albert’s “investments,” is meant to be another sign of his class because the chef is so French one can barely understand his English, and because the food is expensive. It is good enough, he figures, to have Georgina recognize and enjoy the high-class food. He claims to his underlings that the chef’s “obsession is wasted on you lot” whilst scraping all the mushrooms to the side of his plate. Perhaps most strikingly, he insists that “a clever cook puts unlikely things together—like duck and oranges or pineapple and ham—it’s called ‘artistry,'” a word that, like his ill-pronounced French, he over-emphasizes.
Richard, the cook, plays on haute cuisine as a status symbol. He explains to Georgina that he charges more for diet foods, foods thought to be aphrodisiacs, and anything black. Albert is the perfect target for this price gouging, because these foods mean nothing to him other than what he believes they mean to others. They are vanity dishes—ordering them is nothing more than an opportunity to show off his “good taste.”
Albert reveals his conflation of class as social status and as the ability to appreciate things when he ignorantly pronounces ‘profiteroles’ as prah-FIT-er-ohlls (the emphasis producing ‘profit-eroles’) rather than pro-feet-err-ol. Albert manages to turn even the most decadent course of a meal, the course most obviously devoted to pleasure, into a question of money.
Confronted by Michael, someone with taste, and, therefore, class, Albert cannot resist what he thinks is showing Michael up. “This is a restaurant, not a library,” he puffs at Michael. “You’re insulting the chef. Reading gives you indigestion—didn’t you know that? Don’t read at the table!”
In his rumpled brown suit and his books on the French Revolution, Michael is the opposite of Albert: intellectual, quiet, gracious, and, like Georgina, appreciative of Robert’s adventurous culinary creations.
When Albert inevitably discovers his wife’s infidelity, he is enraged and somehow genuinely heartbroken. He tears into the kitchen, growing, “I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him and I’ll eat him!”
Though it veers manically between the gentleness of Georgina and Michael’s encounters and Albert’s vicious displays, the film is beautiful, a labor of love. Any more details, however, and I’ll spoil your dinner. Suffice to say it’s one of my favorites and highly recommended.