Friday, November 04, 2016

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover

A distinctive camera technique in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover, directed by Peter Greenaway in 1989, are long tracking shots that move slowly and methodically from the dining rooms of the restaurant where the film takes place to the kitchen, or in the reverse direction. The dining rooms are ornate and primarily decorated in red hues, and in them sit elegantly dressed diners on plush seats. We see a number of these shots throughout the film, set to rhythmic music one might associate with the Baroque.

There are only a few films I can compare this one to. It reminded me of Fellini Satyricon (1969), with its Hogarthian characters, physical gluttony, excess, scatology, and broadly comic moments and people. It reminded me even of Bahz Luhrmann who in such a film as Moulin Rouge (2001) tried to make art out of lushly ornate and romantic settings and characters and popular music. Luhrmann's film was more uplifting and superficial than this one, with its dark and gruesome depths.

“Excess” is one term for describing this film. It's fascinating to watch, so intricately detailed as it is in both mise en scène and character. But it's a cruel film, and it doesn't give much pleasure. Unless you like sex scenes in a refrigerated room where uncarved sides of slaughtered animals hang over the lovers, or cannibalism, or the abuse of a child, or the seemingly endless sadistic ravings of a narcissistic and abusive maniac and bully. His name is Albert. He owns the restaurant, which in some manner or other he stole from the previous owner.  In the first scene, Albert and cronies drag that owner from the restaurant, force him to strip naked, beat him, cover him with excrement, and force him to lie on the ground while dogs lick and otherwise molest him.  This is just one example of Albert’s behavior.

This is a Jacobean revenge drama. It might have seemed daring and tottering on the edge of what was wild and acceptable in 1989 but today those sensational aspects verge on the banal--excepting the cannibalism and various scenes of torture.

At first I felt fairly indifferent to this film. But it has an undeniable power, a kind of ritualistic momentum that gathers force and propels us towards an ending we should be able to predict given the models on which it is based but which comes as a surprise after all. Then it's merely disgusting, comic, and apt. But there's gratification in that moment too because Albert, the center of cruel darkness and destructiveness, gets his comeuppance. Is this art? It’s made with dramatic and cinematographic skill. Is it pornography of a certain sort—a pornography of epicurean excess rather than of sex? (The sex is fairly tame, mostly involving the entwined naked bodies of the lovers). Is it pornography that verges on art, or art that verges on pornography? I'm not sure. Any statement of praise I make about it leaves me feeling dirty.

The antiseptic detail of the men’s and women’s restrooms reminded me of the ornately severe bedroom near the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and of the general scenic design and décor of Clockwork Orange (1971).  The long dining table at which Albert and his changing array of friends dine night after night iconographically suggests (in what must have been intended irony) Leonardo’s The Last Supper.

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