Thursday, February 09, 2006
Film is more successful as a visual medium than as a literary one. While plotting and story structure are of course important, a great film's strength will most frequently lie in its images. Peter Greenaway's films are perfect examples of this. Like Lynch and Kurosawa, Greenaway is a painter, and this is evident in every exquisitely rendered frame of his best films. In the case of The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover, his best film, Greenaway even changes the color of his female lead's costume to match each room she passes through - green for the kitchen, white for the loo, red for the dining hall. The fine-tuned opulence of the mise-en-scene not only serves as a striking juxtaposition to the cruelty and sadism on display, it is also where the heart of Greenaway's angriest film lies.
Albert Spica is a loudmouthed, vulgar, racist, boorish gangster who verbally and physically abuses everyone around him, particularly his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), on a regular basis. The majority of the film takes place at a restaurant that Albert has forcefully taken over, to the chagrin of the long-suffering cook and rightful owner, Richard Borst (Richard Bohringer). One night, Georgina locks eyes with Michael (Alan Howard), a diner in the restaurant who sits alone every night, reading. Before long, Georgina and Michael have engaged in a passionate affair, meeting every night in the restrooms and pantries of the restaurant as Albert carries on obliviously (as Georgina notes, "It's better if it's right under his nose"). Eventually, the game is up, and the second half of the film is concerned with Albert's revenge and eventual comeuppance. The plot is relatively simple - the above summary could just as easily describe your average pulp novel. What sets The Cook... apart is its extraordinary method of storytelling, at once artificial and visceral, cerebral and emotional, beautiful and revolting.
Gambon is nothing short of brilliant in the role, delivering Albert's long, asinine diatribes about food, culture and sex with gusto. Albert is one of the most hateful villains ever created, both loathsome and pitiful. The most popular explanation of The Cook... is that this big-talking, petty crook is a stand-in for the Thatcher administration, the cook for the working class, Georgina for Britannia, and Michael as the ineffectual left. While this reading is a little too on-the-nose for me, it does point towards the palpable anger in Greenaway's film. The characters' outrage towards Albert seems muted; this is a man who pummels and humiliates his wife every night, who has left Georgina unable to bear children, and who controls everyone around him not through reason or even charm but by sheer bullying. And yet the other leads carry on as though this were to be expected ("Your husband is quite a character," Michael observes, and Georgina chuckles). They know he's stupid and evil, but they accept his presence matter-of-factly, just as we shrug our shoulders at the liars and crooks who assume control of our world. What are you gonna do?
Yet if this were merely a cerebral exercise, it would not work. Mirren is phenomenal here; in her eyes we can see a woman who gave up a long time ago, yet whose passion is reignited by an unassuming bookworm. The way Georgina holds one of Michael's books in her hands, delicately and reverentially, is heartbreaking. The sex scenes are explicit, but not exactly arousing; they are motivated by an essential need to feel, to live. The sex is mirrored in how the characters eat. Georgina is careful, noting the difference between one of Richard's works in progress before and after an extra pinch of sugar. Albert rarely stops talking long enough to eat; we see him play with his food more than enjoy it (Georgina mentions that he's not much interested in sex either). Albert remarks that "It's all shit in the end," and yet it's not to Greenaway - he lights a pepper as sensually as Mirren and Howard's nude bodies, finding a vitality and a meaning in these most essential human acts. In the end, the Richard, Georgina and Michael are victorious over Albert in that they're at least alive; he's decaying inside, just like the rotting trucks of cheap meat he deposits outside the restaurant and promptly forgets.
The Thatcher analogy breaks down for me in characterizing Michael as ineffectual; he's as much a victim of circumstance as Georgina. Three of the four leads are aesthetes, and stand in for Greenaway in various ways; this is particularly true with Michael, whose eventual fate is the result of Greenaway's frustration at - well, not quite ineffectualism, but rather impotence. Art may change people's hearts, but it does not sway governmental policy - it does not change the world, even if it should and we all hope that someday it will. So the grand guignol ending is as much Georgina's gift to Michael as it is her revenge on Albert. The theif's heart cannot be changed; surrounded as he is by fine cuisine and the awesome classical beauty of Hals' "The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia of Haarlem," he still carries on with his barbarism. If Michael (and Greenaway) cannot change Albert, he can at least serve as a means to make the theif puke. It's true that Albert's comeuppance doesn't go as far as our vengeful sides would like; Georgina's control is as important as the act itself. It is enough to humiliate Albert and then be done with him. Greenaway has revealed our modern monsters for what they are; laughable creatures. It's a great, vicious "Fuck you" to the theives of the world.