The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover

That was bloody brilliant!

Have you ever seen something that was absolutely barmy, and excellent at the same time? That’s this.

As a total newcomer to Peter Greenaway’s films, and this being the second of his films I’ve seen in a week, watching them feels like smoking strong dope, or that particular kind of absinthe drunk. He assaults the screen with bold, colourful, unflinching visuals. He strikes at the body. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover speaks constantly to the senses, with food and with sex. When he then hits you with disgust or violence, you feel it in your skin.

The star is Michael Gambon, playing Albert Spica, the titular thief, a gangster with a gastronomic monomania. He has bought over a high-end French restaurant called Le Hollandais, where he daily takes his meals with his retinue of thugs. He has a base animalistic avarice for food, but no higher appreciation of it, dead to all beauty, elegance and art. He talks endlessly on the subject of digestion, equally fascinated with the pleasure and the putrescence. The film begins with him punishing some underling for a perceived slight by force-feeding him shit. He is a brute, and absolutely foul.

Chained to him, like a woman tied to a weight and thrown in the sea, is Helen Mirren, playing Georgina, his wife. She has endured years of abuse at his hands, and now exists like the living dead. Unlike him, she has taste and refinement. She finds him disgusting and deplorable, but is resigned to what seems to be her fate.

That is, until she sees Michael across the restaurant. You’d never believe the pair of them were about to engage in a passionate love affair. He looks like nobody so much as Steve Davis, the boring, pencil-necked snooker player from the 90s. He’s balding at the crown, in a dull brown suit. But his stillness, silence, and humility contrast starkly with her husband’s braying, brash peacocking.

Michael also shows a real appreciation of the food, and sits quietly on his own, reading. Georgina sees immediately in him a kindred spirit, sensitive to literature, learning, and art. Wordlessly they meet and consummate their love in the restaurant toilets.

I cannot tell you how tense this film gets at times. Alone in an empty room, Alfred could make the place seesaw, careening with his violent mood swings toward bloody murder. But with the lovers having to make their assignations around the restaurant with him present at table, there is a constant threat of discovery by this cruel, narcissistic, callous child.

Almost the entire film is shot in one location – the restaurant. Framed like an open stage, the film set feels more like a theatre, with the sexual scandal among petty criminals elevated to the tragedy of Shakespearean plays. The camera follows with lateral tracking shots across the cross-sections of the rooms, trailing from the carpark, through the kitchen, and into the dining area. When people are sent above or below this level, they climb up bare scaffolding, with no attempt to portray a three-dimensional building with inner and obscured structures.

Each room is also flooded with colour, blue for the carpark, green for the kitchen, red for the dining room, white for the toilets. The actors’ costumes also change from room to room, as they seem to soak up the colour of the setting. With the vivid technicolour greens and reds, it made me think of the Wizard of Oz, with Georgina’s outfit changing like a horse of a different colour. The over-the-topness of it feels right at home with ecstatics of passion and the bombast of blaggardry. It also made me think of the coloured rooms in The Masque of the Red Death, that the saturation was a form of torture, just as Alfred’s singular fixation for food robs it of any sensitivity, and the tyranny of his possession of Georgina robs it of any love. Also, the interlinking rooms in Masque give an ominous feel, as if leading to a climax. This does the same, being generally unsettling to the eye, but also it seems to heat up as we move towards where the action is happening.

The carpark is blue, a cold colour for the outside, for the stony concrete. In the opening scene, Alfred pulls up two stolen refrigerated vans full of meat. Their chill is also complimented by the blue, as are the police lights when they come to claim them.

The kitchen is green, warming slightly. It is full of the fruits of nature, huge cornucopias of beast and foul, fruit and veg. Whether transformed into a dish, or still with their living appearance, a sense of the kitchen is evoked as a place of nourishment and life. It’s here most of the sex scenes take place, as new love grows.

And finally the dining room is bright red, the colour of blood. It’s here Alfred holds court. It is the colour of rage, and meat, and violence. The colour of passion, of heat, of murderous intent.

Boarst, the cook, played by Richard Bohringer, helps Georgina and Michael continue their affair, seeing in them two people who truly appreciate his talents. In fact, most people in this are actually quite nice, apart from Alfred and his crew. But the close quarters all but guarantee discovery sooner or later. And then what?

So good. It up-ends this story about a coarse little man, and this couple shagging in the toilets, to the pathos of classical theatre. It plums some of the depths of disgust, but so beautifully it’s undeniably an art film.

A series of contradictions executed perfectly. Loved it.