What do you get if you combine the over-the-top visual histrionics of Ken Russell with the surreal paranoia of David Lynch?
Peter Greenaway’s 1989 The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a feast of frenzy that begins with a cowering naked man being smeared with excrement then urinated upon, and ends with an exquisitely roasted man being served on a platter for dinner. All of the food in this film seems to be served on platters, en hommage to that uniquely ostentatious culinary decade, the 1980’s. One can relive that lost, forgotten decade of gastronomic excess through The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, with its oversized lemon garnishes and enormous prawn cocktails and ridiculous napkin folds.
There was an overwrought visual design to 1980’s cuisine that reflected the garish, yuppie scum mentality of the decade that can also be seen parodied in 2000’s American Psycho. Simply presented, well-cooked menu items were not enough for the nouveau-riche and their coke fueled friends; everything had to be larger than life, where dinner became a performance art, as grace and subtlety had no effect on the emotionally and spiritually numb denizens of the new prosperity.
The Cook, however, is working within a very old school, European template, garnering the utmost attention to his menu, hand plucking his duck and pheasant, employing a saucier to prepare the important sauces and soups, and transforming a veritable warehouse full of the finest meats and vegetables-nothing prepackaged here-into the final works of art served at Le Hollandais. The Cook is performing in 1989 England, but his soul is interested in Classical French cuisine.
The service at the restaurant is also classical in its approach, with traditionally uniformed servers attending to every formal detail with precision, whether replacing silverware between courses, or refilling wine glasses unobtrusively before diners reach the bottom of their beverage. The massive dining room itself at Le Hollandais is opulent in appearance with deep reds and fresh, cut flowers adorning the tables, and an imposing 17th century mural staring down upon its diners. But, something is horribly amiss in this little kingdom.
The Thief, Albert Spica, has recently acquired the restaurant, and has turned it into a sort of salon for his band of mutant misfits. “Who are all these people?” someone asks during one of Albert’s interminable dinner parties, and one of the guests offers, “Small time crooks and pimps, gigolos, busted boxers, cheap whores, bullies, hairdressers, faggots…” Spica chimes in, “Robin Hoods,” and his guest retorts, “No, just hoods.”
It seems that the restaurant’s new owner, Albert, is no more than a common criminal, albeit one who bullied and terrorized his way into a position of wealth and power. And as a representative of those that came into vast amounts of wealth without any sense of history, tradition, or culture, Spica behaves like a spoiled child whose most inexcusable conduct becomes acceptable to his coterie of like-minded friends and acquaintances. Spica has bought his way into this club, and he wants everyone to worship at the altar of his largesse.
Spica, however, is the man at the beginning of the film smearing dog feces on a debtor, and the man who hits his wife on a regular basis at the table in front of his guests and other diners, and the man who stabs a fork into one of his female guest’s faces for angering him. Spica wants to move enormous neon lettering into the staid and decorous dining room, at one point exclaiming, apropos of nothing, “This place is too dark…It needs more gold.” Meanwhile, he lords over his degenerate kingdom belching, cursing, and insulting everybody within his psychopathic distance, begging the question: What happens when someone with no business being in power buys his way into power?
Albert Spica is one of the most believably detestable villains to ever darken the silver screen, and as a spokesman for his generation, reflects the hollow and misinformed logic that allows the powerful to bulldoze over anyone or anything that dares get in the way of its demented progress. Spica never believes that he is committing evil, but that what he is doing is good and just and fair. Sadly, everybody in his retinue stands idly by as he engages in one atrocity after another.
His Wife, Georgina, has suffered his intolerable outbursts for some time, and never has a word with him that is not in disagreement. She pays dearly, in physical and psychological abuse, yet has the last word, literally, in securing her freedom from Albert. She begins an illicit liaison with a regular patron of Le Hollandais, a quiet intellectual type, a man eating by himself and reading in silent amusement as Albert holds court with vulgar abandon over his ignorant disciples.
“Why can’t I have some bloody quality in my associates?” Albert bellows to no one in particular, as his gang eats with their fingers, and picks their teeth, and vomit, as if this were acceptable table etiquette. Georgina, meanwhile, has been sneaking off, during his tirades, into the toilets and the meat lockers and the pantries of the restaurant, with Her Lover, asserting her freedom from her husband’s tyranny by making love with the intellectual among some of the least romantic locations imaginable.
The Lover is the polar opposite of The Thief, a mild mannered, soft spoken intellectual whose favorite book is The French Revolution, a foreshadowing of the uprising that will occur at the end of the film. And, therein, is the rub. Through the theatrically staged kitchen, with its castrato dishwashing boy and dramatic lighting, to the spectacular fine art settings of the dining room, into the modernistic, neon bathroom, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is ultimately a political parable on the unchecked abuses of power that occur when there is nobody around to shut a monomaniacal leader down.
The film’s writer/director Peter Greenaway famously told film critic Joel Siegel upon the film’s release in 1989, “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a passionate and angry dissertation for me on the rich, vulgarian, Philistine, anti-intellectual stance of the present cultural situation in Great Britain, supported by that wretched woman who is raping the country, destroying the welfare state, the health system, mucking up the educational system, and creating havoc everywhere.” By specifically targeting Margaret Thatcher’s 1980’s England, Greenaway is also indirectly indicting Ronald Reagan’s 1980’s America. However, the condemnation of corrupt and ruthless tyranny does not begin and end with governmental institutions, Greenaway seems to be suggesting, but can be extended to one’s personal and emotional life as well. Tyranny anywhere is tyranny everywhere.
The film received a lot of criticism over the years for its filmic depictions of brutality, misogyny, and vulgarity, but compared to what Greenaway saw happening in the real world at that time, a cinematic metaphor could hardly be as offensive as the situations he was depicting. Or, as Albert Spica tells one of his henchmen during an especially torturous moment, “I didn’t mean you had to literally chew his bollocks off. I meant it metaphorically!”
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.