So for this week I’ve recommended Alex watch the mouthful that is The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. I first watched this in my second year of university and instantly fell in love with what appears to be a cinematic oxymoron – at once brutal to watch, whilst simultaneously mesmerisingly beautiful.
It’s a real mixture of feelings and thats part of its unique appeal.
It also serves as an interesting double-act with Riff-Raff – both films attempt to study the post-thatcher era. Whilst Riff-Raff concerned itself with the plight of the working-class, TCTTHWHL (even condensed it still induces a stutter) takes an expressionist look at the greedy entrepreneurial-class that Thatcher promoted, and often a very candid and difficult look.
The film, directed by Peter Greenaway, tells the story of well… a cook, a thief, his wife and her lover. Add in the absolute vulgarity and violence of the thief and you have yourself quite a captivating, if condensed, story. It is operatic, vibrant, elegant and completely disgusting!
So, Alex, what did you think of this tough-but-pretty watch?
I really enjoyed this film, it was a treat for the senses; visually I enjoyed the set design and costume design, I also enjoyed the soundtrack (especially Pup’s intermittent operatic singing….) etc. The film, for me, worked in a raw emotional way: I found it funny, the sex scenes were properly sexy and some of the more revolting scenes effected me profoundly. I also really enjoyed the performances, specifically the smoking Helen Mirren.
After watching the film I read some stuff written about it and discovered the post-thatcher stuff underlying the film that you have discussed. It dawned on me that I had missed a huge part of the film. This, also partnered with some literary references (the lover being fed the French Revolution book, again, over my head), made me feel as though perhaps I hadn’t enjoyed the film the way it was supposed to be enjoyed. I don’t know whether this is a fault with the film or a fault with the viewer, or maybe not a fault at all and I’m just thinking about it too much… I got that the the thief represented greed, and I took from it that greed infects everything around you and can blind you to what’s really going on and in the end you will end up consuming something much less enjoyable that you have cooked yourself (stop me if I’m spreading the metaphor too thin!). But my lack of knowledge, either political or literal, meant I missed out.
My question to you is, is it enough to just enjoy a film, even if you are not enjoying it in the way you are supposed to? Can you enjoy a political film without noticing its politics?
Yeah, I would certainly say so. I think the politics behind this film aren’t necessarily a part of the narrative but more a motivation behind some of the emotions instilled in it. I think there’s multiple levels of enjoyment to a film like this. One of the big draws for me was the visuals and the monstrous performance by Michael Gambon.
What did you think of Mirren’s Georgina being the catalyst for revenge (as opposed to the cook or Pup… or the fella covered in shit at the beginning) when she herself is a product of wealth, capitalism and greed? What do you think Greenaway is trying to say by having her as the one to take down Gambon’s Spica?
So, if the focus of the film is on greed and how it inevitably destroys you, you could see Georgina as just another meal that Spica abuses and doesn’t appreciate, or understand. So really, in the end, Spica is hung by his own petard, he is destroyed by his own negligence and greed.
What do you think? Like capitalism eats itself?
Yeah I think I’m with you – he consumes her throughout the film, constantly groping and grabbing at her, and now she’s (metaphorically) biting back. I mean you can also argue that she is old money fighting Thatcher’s spawn of new money. Not sure how much appeal that has on a working-class audience though…
I got a big stage-play vibe from this. The setting felt like it was designed for an opera with a revolving set. What did you think of that? Why do you think Greenaway chose that kind of visual style?
I was going to ask you the same question! Why did Greenaway choose make the film on a stage? Could it be to highlight the film’s emphasis on the consumption of pleasure? Or, the theatre could be seen as a rich man’s leisure activity, and the film is about rich men. Though importantly the film is about newly rich men; Spica eats this expensive food but doesn’t have a clue what it is, he mispronounces French phrases etc. What I mean is, the use of a theatrical aesthetic places these “common” characters in a world that isn’t there’s but that they have bought there way into and they destroy from the inside.
What do you get from my illegible ramblings, and what do you think?
I found it very legible and insightful actually so there… But yeah I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. I think there’s a notion being thrown around that this ‘new rich’ is leading to the death of culture and taste, and the stage setting, with its opulent design matched with a slice of filth, is embodying that notion.
I absolutely adore the use of colour in this. What did you read from it?
Yeah I loved the use of very expressive colours, and I think Greenaway used them really cleverly to help create a sense that the whole film is happening somewhere not of this world, perhaps in a dream. Not only the colours but the costumes too, designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, were not only lovely to look at but part of the narrative. I suppose the focus on beautiful costume and rich colours is another way in which the film depicts a world of garish excess.
I really love doing these reviews because it forces you to think about decisions that have been made in films. Just by having this conversation I feel I am continuing my enjoyment and reading of the film.
Taking it back to the use of colour, all of the characters wore very loud block colours, apart from ‘the lover’ (Alan Howard), who wore muted red or brown suits. What do you think this tells us about his character?
Absolutely! And the colour really gives each unique room its own feel, and its own world. There’s a big Nicholas Ray/Wim Wenders vibe here and I bloody love it! I noticed the same thing about ‘the lover’, I think it goes some way into separating him from a world of excess and consumption. That he is this sophisticated but modest consumer of culture that is probably dying out. Can he be read as the embodiment of Greenaway? Or even the spectator?
Maybe, but for all his modesty and kindness I found something unlikeable about the lover; I thought he was a snob, and looked down on Spica. You can’t buy class but you can be born into it…
The chef (Richard Bohringer) was my favourite – humble and classy. The scene where he is washing the shit off the guy- I got big hints of him being a Jesus figure.
I think I agree with you actually, there was something irritating about his demeanour. I guess next to spica anyone will look good!
The chef was my favourite too, I really related to him. He has aura of class because he spent his whole life studying it, but he knows it doesn’t make him better than everyone. What a hero!
Let me get this straight, you relate to the Jesus figure… lol.
My final thoughts are that it was a ‘delicious’ film (dammit I tried so hard not to use food puns throughout this). I devoured it (shit) and I don’t think that my enjoyment of this highly expressive film was hindered by any underlying messages.
8/10 | Alex 9/10 | Luke