Sunday 16 December 2012

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)

I should say from the off that this is one of my favourite films, and by my favourite director, Peter Greenaway.  It's a beautiful thing with its excessively rich use of colour, its symmetry, its huge, perfectly framed sets, its poetic justice, its many depictions of grand cookery (which is like grand larceny, with cucumbers and swans) and its overwhelming Michael Nyman soundtrack.

I had forgotten - until I pondered lending it to a friend - quite how grotesque and horrible it is.  Not that its beauty hides or is undermined by its excessive violence, its obscene central character, its desperate, fraught and interrupted sex and its coupling of nudity with stinking, decaying and maggot-filled meat.  In a way it all works together to make a strange, horribly engrossing feast of sound, colour and performance.

Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) laughs at prairie-oysters

Michael Gambon's character is so watchably aggressive and churlish here that it's almost difficult to properly condemn his long campaign of his bullying, belching, eating, merry-making and stabbing, his fumbling attempts at pretentiousness, his place as the king of a court of English gangsters.  He's disgusting and despicable, yet despite all the hatred he exercises against his wife, his gang and his enemies, I feel sorrow for his character and at the same time want to see him die.  I can believe in someone so powerful and pathetic.  I condone nothing he does, save for the eating of food, but the performance and character are fantastically engaging.  How pleasingly different a role for the man now better known as Albus Dumbledore.

I must speak again about the visual feast.  In the restaurant, where most of the action plays out, everything is a regal red.  The walls, the curtains and the costumes.  Rich, sumptuous, bloody, and dominated by a painting in the same hues and character.  As soon as the action moves to the kitchen, however, the same characters' clothes become greenest green, matching the drapes, the lights and the vegetables.  Blue outside, where the dogs are continuously barking, and pure white in the women's toilets.  The first time I saw this I took it to be some trick of lighting - but no!  These places are different worlds, without compromise.

Like saying, ha ha, 'death, I'm eating you!'

In competition with the feverishly colourful visuals is Michael Nyman's finest work, his funeral march Memorial, which rightly has its own Wikipedia page (at once the cheapest and greatest accolade of any notable work).  Twelve driving minutes of minimalist Purcellian honking, bearing some of the most exciting and alarming soprano vocals I've ever been glad to hear.  It matches the film perfectly.

Incidentally, the film has the highest score of all the Greenaways in the 's/he's been in Doctor Who' game, with Michael Gambon, Roger Lloyd Pack and Alex Kingston, in that order of prominence.  Of actors unconnected to Doctor Who (is it concerning that my mind really works this way?) I must point out the rare acting performance from Ian 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick' Dury, and apologise for so far failing to mention Helen Mirren and Richard Bohringer as the eponymous wife and cook, who make a long conversation towards the end, about voyeurism and how to decide what to charge for items on the menu, the highlight of the film, bar the finale.

If you've the stomach for it, I'd urge you towards The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.  Sumptuous, horrible, beautiful and alarming - a combination I find bizarrely appealing.

Cucumber-chopping cutaway in a scene with near-tasteful nudity

P.S. I'd meant my comments on this blog to be quite a bit shorter than this.  Do excuse me.

P.P.S. If you happen to be my mother, do not watch this film.  It just isn't your sort of thing.

Tempted to watch the film? You could buy it on DVD. Or, you know, you could borrow my copy, but not everybody lives very near my shelves.

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