When Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was released twenty-eight years ago, it went unrated in the US because the only other choice was “X,” the same rating given to hard-core pornography. I remember reading at the time that it was a grotesque, overheated tale of cannibalism. I had no desire to see it.
Two circumstances changed that. First, Michael Gambon (yes, Dumbledore) is being honored with an IFTA Lifetime Achievement Award for his six-decade career as a stage and screen actor. Second, for five years I have nursed a mad ambition to see every film and TV show in which Ciarán Hinds appears, and this was one of the last items on the list.
Most of the first hour is spent making viewers queasy by juxtaposing bodily functions which we normally keep separate. In the first scene, Albert Spica, the thuggish new owner of a lavish restaurant, is shown forcing dog feces into the mouth of a hapless man who owes him money. Over dinner, he discourses on human milk as a delicacy for adults, and the drinking of urine by ascetics in India, while harshly critiquing the table manners and personal grooming of his lackeys. (Inevitably I thought: this is not my cup of wee.)
Then Spica’s elegant but much-abused wife, Georgina, exchanges glances with a man at another table, who has brought only a book for company. Soon, she meets him in the ladies’ room for a passionate tryst. Every night thereafter, Georgina and Michael find a hidden corner of the restaurant in which to make love under the very nose of the vicious Spica. When he learns the truth, he tortures Michael to death, stuffing the pages of his own books down his throat (this is the only part I could not bring myself to watch). But Georgina plans a most fitting revenge…
Several reviewers have described the film as a political allegory of the arrogance, crassness, and callousness of Thatcherism. Ergo, the Cook is the well-meaning citizen who nevertheless collaborates with bullies and thugs; the Thief is consumerist culture led by the rapacious power class; the Wife is helpless Britannia, imprisoned in a sterile union, and the Lover is the intellectual Left, full of desire but too weak to rescue his beloved.
A good allegory transcends the specific situation for which it was written. And so it is with Cook, Thief, which contains some uncanny parallels to Trump and his nauseating court. Indeed, it was the Long Suffering Husband who first made the connection, pointing to Spica’s absurd neckwear.
Spica becomes more and more violent, harassing the other diners and eventually driving them from the restaurant. The only man to challenge him openly is Corey, after Spica hassles his girlfriend.
After ramming a fork into the girlfriend’s face, Spica goes on to remark that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone if he liked, and not lose voters… oops, different bully.
He judges women on sexual attractiveness and feels free to belittle and grope them…
Spica measures men by how they look, too. He finds his henchman’s jacket ill-fitting and his fingernails a disgrace:
He surrounds himself with opulence and plenty, but doesn’t have much compassion for the poor, especially if they are foreigners:
Not satisfied with the over-the-top decor of Le Hollandais (complete with 17th-century Dutch-style arrangements of food and a Frans Hals mural), he decides that something is missing: