Sunday, 22 January 2012

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

Where to start with a film like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover? With the titular cook presiding over a kitchen staff seemingly composed of circus freaks, urban Bedouins, and escaped lunatics, with a Dickensian chimneysweep-cum-choir boy for their mascot? With Michael Gambon’s “thief” thundering out a litany of French delicacies as he smears dog feces across a helpless, naked victim’s face? With his blasé wife Helen Mirren daintily biting at a sprig of asparagus in spite of being surrounded by a tableful his slovenly, unshaven thugs? Or with her lover Alan Howard’s crisply responding to the intimidating blustering of Gambon’s mobster-kingpin by pointing out “I’m not Jewish”? Or how to continue, for that matter, with a soulful romance that nonetheless hinges on silent, desperate, needful sex – complete with full frontal nudity – in bathroom stalls and kitchen enclaves? Or where to conclude, when you’ve reached a point where forcing a man at gunpoint to eat a broiled human carcass – covered in glaze and laid out a platter of cauliflower and lemon – seems fairly par for the course?

Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is one of those films that test your most basic ideas – not merely about cinema, but about art in general. It’s virtually custom-made to flush out the prudes and the poseurs who think that art’s job is to be basically “nice” and reassuring, or who think that the merest hint of “naughtiness” (Ooh, she’s having an affair – how daring of the writers! Ooh, they’re showing the genital areas – how sophisticated this film is!) is somehow transgressive. Greenaway allows his viewers none of this, however. Throughout the first act, especially, he consistently uses long shots and long takes to keep emotional manipulation to an absolute minimum, and thus normalize as far as possible this remorselessly Freudian mirror-world he’s created. Absolutely everything is ultimately linked back to humanity’s most elemental drives. Sex and food aren’t so much contrasted as synchronized here, as with the sublime theme of testicle-eating. Tim Roth’s hireling is first informed about “prairie oysters,” then begs off chewing Michael’s balls off out of respect for Albert – they’ve probably still got Georgina’s juices on them, after all.

The great travesty about this film is that many critics have tried to genteelly bypass all this and bestow on the film the false dignity of being a grand anti-Thatcher metaphor, with Cook=Old Family Firms, Thief=80s Corporate  Raiders, Wife=Basic British Decency, and Lover=Supine Labour Opposition. The film needs no such interpretation to constitute a shattering rebuke to Thatcherism; its very nature makes it totally antithetical to such. The sort of dreamy Tory who can watch Chariots of Fire and go moist in the eyes at its portrayal of an idyllically all-white and pastoral Britain – one where the working classes know their place and young couples are sweetly tentative at the very thought of intimacy – will be haunted at night to know that a film like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover even exists. Its spatial orientation is urban and cosmopolitan, its characters are jaded and decadent, and it locates the seat of human wisdom not in the head or in the heart but in the groin. It is a sublime work for violently dispelling the sort of childishly conservative illusions that too many of us still harbour nowadays.

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