Film appreciation: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover | South China Morning Post
Jan 1, On another level, there is no end to the ideas stirred up by this movie, which was Or is it simply about a cook, a thief, his wife and her lover?. Jul 11, The brutality, viciousness, crudity and depravity voiced in British director Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover meant it. Peter Greenaway's recent film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, seems to While Neville admits that he fled the cinema before the film's end, he still uses it to . Her relationship to the Thief is presented in terms of dominance and.
It settles on a pair of liveried waiters in front of a red curtain that they move toward and part, revealing La Hollandaise restaurant and the ground level car park where Spica and associates pull up in their cars. The parting of the curtain, the closing of which marks the conclusion of the film acknowledges the staging of the space, demarcates its limits and can be read as a dilating orifice.
No more attention is given to the source of this produce that the Cook rejects than his own preferred ingredients that fill the larders of the kitchen — plants, animals, farms and their workers, butchers, fishmongers and the myriad other points of supply are absent from the film which posits a world bounded by rich food and rich diners.
The steam rising from assorted pans and trees of produce and hanging utensils and foodstuffs contribute to the sense of fecund undergrowth. The cook becomes an arbiter of taste, not just in regards to the synaesthetic melange of taste and smell, but in all things where judgement is required.
Mr Spica — this is a duck — ducks are born with feathers on. The French culinary word for duck is canard. Normally the feathers of a canard have to come off.
But it is your dinner Mr Spica — do you want the feathers to remain? We could try the dish, I suppose, by leaving the feathers as they are — canard en ses plumes torche. Borst, the facilitator of the adultery, escapes unharmed because simply by eating at La Hollandaise, Spica can feel that he is cultured. Unlike any other activity that might satisfy this need, the more prosaic consequence that he will also be fed fulfils a biological imperative. It is here that the effect of Spica is felt, where each dish, conversation and incident provides the catalyst for an expression of who he wishes to be.
Everyfaux-pas committed by his less enthusiastic companions is seized upon and spat back at them as evidence that they lack the social graces he, explicitly, possesses. The arrival of each platter summons forth poorly understood pronunciations and provides the opportunity to indicate that he makes no distinction between service and servility.
For all the profusion of food in the kitchen, the aptitude of those who prepare it and the elegance of the waiters and splendour of the plates, the finished dishes are noticeable by their absence. The culmination, indeed the justification for the restaurant, is barely visible. We see food by the mouthful that aids our understanding of the interplay between characters. Yet the camera that glides through the connecting rooms does not dwell on the courses, rendering the film a visual feast without food.
Michael, deemed a sufficiently appreciative diner to earn a special dish from the Cook, takes only a cursory glance at his food. His appetite seems attenuated, only recovering when he shares a clandestine meal with Georgina in the Book Depository, the point at which the need for sustenance takes precedence over his reading, even as he lays amidst a room full of books. But, in the absence of food to salivate over, we, the audience, are reduced to having our hunger appeased by listening to the names of foods and dishes, having to read the menus prioritising the discursive over the visual.
Further, his power as Mr Spica Mr Speakerthe moderator of debate determining who may speak, is powerless before someone who remains mute. Unable to ignore the silent threat that Michael poses, Spica belittles him and then, with some coercion, encourages him to sit at his table. Further asserting his control of those around him, Spica forces Georgina to engage in a dialogue with Michael, saying: From the very outset Albert has violated distinctions between ingestion and excretion, between the naughty bits and the dirty bits.
Even at the moment of her confessional with the dead Michael, the bragging of his intimacy with Georgina centres on knowledge of her toiletry habits. Yet held in check, perhaps through fear or perhaps fascinated by the ghastly spectacle, they resist only when directly confronted.
In this context, the divide between flesh and meat is irrevocably crossed. Even at his most vengeful, Spica detects an opportunity to project himself as a man of taste: An affair of the heart. I want no evil gossip spread around about me. They are going to say it was a dignified revenge killing — as they are going to admire the style — he was stuffed — and Albert liked good food — they might even smile — he was stuffed with the tools of his trade — he was stuffed with books — the crummy little book-keeper!
The act reflects the business model that Spica has set up. Clawing protection money from La Hollandaise to spend at La Hollandaise is a variant on ploughing money back into the business that, literally feeding on itself, is not sustainable. The table set for the Private Function at which Spica meets his demise then feels like a harbinger of what is to come if the situation is not resolved.
Angry, disorientated, conciliatory, and finally fearful, the Thief is presented with the cadaver of the Lover, prepared by the Cook, at the behest of the Wife. Time enough for the audience to realise that any empathetic sense of triumphalism renders them complicit. How can one ethically experience pleasure in another's pain? Aesthetic distance does not offer a satisfying solution because the power of art depends upon its believability, its reality, not its artificiality.
Much as does Ebert, Jones is here arguing that the film is about showing us the inhuman in ourselves, showing us how we can take great pleasure from witnessing the unbearable pain of others. The film interrogates our humanity. So is the film "about" Thatcherism? Is it about power?
Is it about voyeurism? Is it about the audience? Is it about a restaurant? In the end, the film is about what each viewer wants it to be about: As Gherghel argues, As we sum up and take stock of this film, we realize that any analysis could go on indefinitely.
This is due to the fact that the intellectual openings and references afforded by the film are so numerous that they turn it into a departure point, a pretext, for a great deal of subsequent reflection.
In fact, the debate that the film provokes, bears on what is the most basic and fundamental in man. Everything gathered here is primary: What gives uniqueness to the film is the fact that this fable displays basic aspects of the human soul, while using extremely artistic and sophisticated means. Thus, we find in this film a striking disproportion between essence and appearance, between form and content.
It is difficult to say which of these aspects overrides the other. Because The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is, above all, a representation, and our belief is that the producers have conceived it as an exercise in style, something like an aesthetic feat.
That is why it addresses itself less to the audiences intellect and more to its senses. Before judging, we are invited to follow, to feel and to experience. For further information, see: Violence and Voyeurism", Latent Image, Fall Helen Mirren, "Interview with Roger Ebert", available here.
A Discourse on Disgust", Continuum: What was the MPAA ratings controversy all about? Filmmakers are generally loath to accept X-ratings for two primary, and connected, reasons.
Film appreciation: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Firstly, the X-rating has become synonymous with hard-core pornography, and secondly, many theatres will not play X-rated movies regardless of their porn content or lack thereof because their landlord contracts forbid it. Miramax ultimately went with the unrated option, and included a conspicuous "For adults only" warning in the advertising campaign. However, the MPAA's decision was not without controversy.
Several critics and filmmakers voiced their feelings that the MPAA's refusal to grant the film an R-rating was bordering dangerously close to censorship, when their role should be confined to classification.
Basically, there is no "Adults Only" category, other than the pornography category; there is no middle ground in the MPAA system, a film is either suitable for everyone R-rating or it is porn X-rating. One of the harshest and most outspoken critics of the decision to deny the film an R-rating was Roger Ebert. He composed a scathing attack on the MPAA in his review of the movie in the Chicago-Sun Times in which he accused them of ineptitude and hypocrisy; We live in a country where there is no appropriate category for a serious film for adults.
On the one hand, there's the R-rating which means a film can be seen by anyone in possession of a parent or adult guardian and on the other there's the X-rating, which has been discredited by its ironclad association with hard-core porno. Why not an A-rating, for adults only? That would be the appropriate rating for a movie like this.
But then, God forbid, the theaters might actually have to turn potential customers away! And so the MPAA enters its third decade of hypocrisy, and serious filmmakers like Peter Greenawayfilmmakers with something urgent to say and an extreme way of saying it, suffer the MPAA's tacit censorship.
A few days after her appeal, but before the MPAA made their final decision to deny the film the R-rating, Mirren was interviewed by Ebert, and made some extremely interesting observations about the ratings system. Mirren, being English, comes from a film industry with a very straightforward age-based classification system. Inthe basic rating groups in the UK and Ireland were U Universal - anyone could see the filmPG Parental Guidance - parents should watch before allowing children to see it15 anyone under 15 could not see it and 18 anyone under 18 could not see it.
I think it's bad for adults, since it makes it difficult for them to see films they might really enjoy. And on the other side of it, children see films that I think are dangerous for them as well. The whole R-rating depends on a strange sort of fantasyland where all adults are responsible people, and children only ever go to the cinema with their parents. They don't go with babysitters or older brothers, or with the local drug dealer.
Auteur Chef Greenaway tucks in our napkins, places the menus on our laps, as we await in dignified expectation - our bellies murmuring perhaps - for the velvet curtains to part and the spectacle to begin But judging by the violent response to the film, many found it unpalatable and nauseating. Emetic rather than mimetic art perhaps. For example, an article by Richard Neville demanded to know: When the credits roll what are we left with? Neville, however, would prefer that such films were not made, or if they are, that they should not be seen.
The problem that emerges here is one of the concealed political stance of any aesthetic, however obscured or veiled by nostalgic rhetoric. As Meaghan Morris points out, much film criticism in Australia still seems to rely on the 'gut reaction' of the critic.
In this case, Neville's 'gut-reaction' was one of nausea and disgust; but at no point in his discussion is this reaction explored. I would suggest that this response triggered by the film - this collusion of distaste and disgust subverting its visual pleasures - is one of its most important textual devices.
Our pleasure in the visual luxuriousness of the film, our 'disinterested' appreciation of the film's aesthetic qualities, is undermined by much of the graphic violence, the imagery of death and decay.
A shift then, from the visual to the visceral; an inscription of the spectator's body during the incorporation of the text. Perhaps also a critique of the aesthetics of 'taste' and the detached appreciation of the 'autonomous' artwork; the response of nausea or disgust opposite of taste undermines a contemplative visual consumption through an interruption of visual pleasure by direct visceral response.
Difficult to incorporate, resisting easy digestion, The Cook, the Thief is a transgressive text; one which, in its self-reflexivity and appropriation of historical forms, allows several simultaneous readings. Briefly, in the Critique Of Judgement, Kant wishes to demonstrate the autonomy of works of art, and poses an aesthetics in which universal disinterested judgements of beauty can be made by individuals in possession of 'good taste'.
The representations of contemplative, visual 'high-art' - Greenaway's 'painterly' style and composition, the allusions to the European art world - are ruptured by the simultaneous depiction of corporeal abjection and cruelty.
The Cook, the Thief exposes some of the difficulties which arise when applying liberal humanist modes of criticism to a complex, self-reflexive text.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
A complex, contradictory text which is being approached in ways which fail to engage with it critically: The Cook, the Thief is stylised, self-consciously theatrical in structure, but appropriated for cinematic space.
The opening shot of dogs feeding on flesh moves slowly upward from its 'ground' as it were past industrial-type scaffolding, to reveal red plush curtains which are opened by two smartly tailored waiters or ushers. We are in for a theatrical performance.
- The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover – Use of Color as a metaphor for transformation
- DOUBLE DIALOGUES
The action begins with Spica and his gang arriving in a car, leaping out, and proceeding to bash and humiliate a naked victim, smearing him with dog excrement. The scene is framed by two delivery vans whose normally prosaic status is transformed by the revelation of their contents of artfully arranged meat and fish.
An exotic young man and young woman are placed picturesquely in each, forming an Edenic tableau of flesh and plenitude; a triptych of violence, flesh and sensuality which prefigures the rest of the film. The importance of the frame - the parergon - becomes critical: The frame is the carefully composed tableau of flesh and icons of male and female beauty; serene, detached, contemplative, it is this frame which overwhelms or contradicts the violence depicted within.
The larger 'frame' involves elements like the music, the setting, the contextualised viewing of a film by Peter Greenaway in a certain social space, with all the attendant meanings and suppositions this brings to the scene. It is these distinctions which are undermined in this opening scene and then throughout the whole film. For Kant, the metaphor of the frame delimits the proper space of aesthetic representation; what is pertinent here is how for Derrida such boundaries are not so easily fixed; there is always a tendency for 'inessential' details outworks, parerga, ornamental settings to thrust themselves forward and upset the logic of Kant's argumentation.
The serenity and detachment necessary for the exercise of taste, judgement, and the discrimination of beauty, are brutally undermined. Calming surveying this violence and humiliation, we are introduced to the Wife, Georgina. She is represented from the start as detached and disinterested, framed in immaculate clothing: Of interest here is the concentration on her as an enigma, silent and detached, during the onslaught of violence and humiliation which constitutes the action of the scene. As Laura Mulvey points out, this is an old ruse: His blunt assertion of power and her submission are unexplained.
The Thief and his Wife are not represented as 'fully fleshed' characters; but as their medieval titles suggest, they are signs or ciphers around which oppositions are constructed and contested. Spica Aspic, Despicable, Speaker becomes the embodiment of greed, insatiable appetites and grotesque corporeality, who with an almost Sadean cruelty wishes to consume everything in sight. Signifying the 'vulgarity' and 'bad taste' of the nouveau riche, Spica is both parody and cliche.
His is the 'grotesque body' surrounded by sumptuous banquet imagery; an enormous mouth and alimentary canal that seeks to master the world by consumption. He recalls Gargantua in his Rabelaisian excess: In the act of eating It triumphs over the world, over its enemy, celebrates its victory, grows at the world's expense. The volatile state prior to the French Revolution - the period that so interests the Lover and becomes mode and symbol of his death - is transposed into the present through the revenge tragedy model and the historical 'text' of the Revolution itself.
Spica and his gang are the most conspicuous of consumers; an inverted, parodic model of the inheritors of the Revolution. Moving from the cool blue of the carpark, a slow, stately tracking shot brings us into the kitchen, a large medieval-type space bustling with life and bathed in a soft green light. This is the sanctuary, the place of nurturance and transformation, guarded by the Cook, where the miraculous transformation of the raw into the cooked takes place. Cooking becomes a metaphor for a series of transformations throughout the rest of the film: The Lover and the Wife understand the codes of high culture, here the etiquette of haute French cuisine.
Traversing the Alimentary Canal: Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
They order the same meals - or rather, the Thief does, he 'intuits' their taste - and maintain the same detached decorum or disinterested appreciation of the beauty of dining. The aesthetic of consumption becomes a metaphorical seduction; they eye each other lustily across the restaurant, they have similar 'taste'.
The Thief, by contrast, is gross, corporeal; an inverted parody of the Enlightenment humanism of the Lover. Yet this neat distinction is disallowed from the start, as we see the Lover - conservatively dressed in unchanging, parchment brown - busily consuming a book along with his meal.
He is an anchronism, an anomaly, the only character whose colour of dress does not reflect his changes in environment. Absorbed in his books, in the past, nostalgically he recalls the period of the Revolution; its moribund inheritor, he effectively signifies an ironic distancing from an already alienated and parodied past.
Yet he has a very physical affair with the Wife; their sexuality transgresses the neat polarisation of the Lover as Mind and the Thief as Body. This simple duality is subverted in that the minor term in each character actually is shown to be dominant: Does this duality also have political and cultural dimensions?
The Lover as Enlightenment rationalism, high cultural modernism, a kind of early capitalism, perhaps; the Thief as grotesque embodiment of consumer capitalism, the monologic discourse which, according to Lyotard, seeks to absorb all in its language of economic consumption and exchange.
The restaurant becomes a model of a 'general economy' of exchange - of bodies and pain, foods and excrement, wealth and signifiers. As Other to the Thief, the embodiment of voracious consumption, the Lover must be consumed and introjected.