Albert Spica has commandeered ‘La Hollandais’, an exclusive restaurant where the chef, Richard Borst, creates elaborate cuisine. Albert dines there regularly with his gang of unruly associates and his wife, Georgina; he extorts protection money from Borst. During their visits to the restaurant, Georgina, bored and disgusted by her life with Spica, begins a dangerous liaison with Michael, a refined, cultivated diner. Spica takes his inevitable, bloody revenge on Michael, but Georgina triumphs by serving up her dead lover’s body as a meal that he must confront and consume.
Peter Greenaway’s films have always divided their audiences and critical response. But The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a special case because, of all his films, it seemed to capture something of its time, and even entered the broader culture, thanks to courageous performances, Michael Nyman’s ‘minimalist baroque’ score and a very strange title. Greenaway intended The Cook as a savage satire, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, ‘on the current British political situation. Since this is a movie about consumer society, it’s about greed – a society’s, a man’s’ (Smith 1990: 55). Greenaway is a very literate director, and there is also a sense of medieval allegory in the way the roles of Cook, Thief, Wife and Lover seem to represent particular qualities (Wheale 1995: 180), while the cannibalistic climax of this ‘contemporary melodrama’ took inspiration from the excesses of Jacobean revenge drama (Greenaway 1989: ‘Introduction’). As with all Greenaway films, The Cook is at the same time a rejection of the conventions of mass popular, feature-film cinema – ‘Hollywood’ – and is concocted according to its director’s own distinctive recipe. This is therefore a very ambitious project: does Greenaway’s highly individual aesthetic simultaneously deliver an effective social critique?
Just one year after the release of Greenaway’s film, the Berlin Wall had fallen, apartheid was rapidly crumbling in South Africa, and Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait. Elements of the world we currently know were taking shape. Within this longer view, The Cook can seem like a retrospective, even claustrophobic film, addressing a domestic agenda in peculiarly British terms, in spite of its director’s declared preference for European film style. The object of Greenaway’s satirical attack was ‘Thatcherism’, or more precisely, the perceived consequences for British society of Margaret Thatcher’s three Conservative administrations, first elected a decade earlier in 1979.
Thatcherism, partnered more grandly on the world stage by ‘Reaganomics’, broke with the post Second World War consensus on the economic regulation of the state. The brisk new agenda demanded: privatisation of formerly state-owned industries, utilities and assets to enforce competitive efficiency; reshaping of labour markets and trade union law, again in the interests of a freer market; promotion of the entrepreneur economy in order to break the supposed ‘dependency culture’; and finally, an assault on the privileges and protective practices of the established, professional classes and their institutions – legal, medical and scholastic. These radical interventions delivered greater prosperity to more than half the population, producing what the American economist, J. K. Galbraith, termed ‘the culture of contentment’, an unparalleled affluence for a significant proportion of the electorate, who therefore tended to become politically quiescent. However, on some calculations, at least onethird of the UK population became, in real terms, poorer than they had been in the late 1970s. The abandonment of the one-nation consensus of the post-war period therefore produced a significantly divided society, with increasing ‘social exclusion’ and a perception that levels of crime and disorder were inexorably rising. The impact of globalisation during the 1990s internationalised and intensified all of these trends and their consequent tensions.
The Cook strips away the armatures of society and social cohesion. The world beyond Richard Borst’s restaurant is portrayed as no more than an icy blue parking lot that services a rank of restaurants and eateries; dog packs scavenge the bins. The only effective law enforcement is concerned with food hygiene, the police and officials who attempt to empty two putrefying delivery vans. One of Spica’s goons, Harris, does worry about the consequences of their murder of Georgina’s lover, ‘the modest man’ Michael: ‘I’m saying the book-keeper’s going to get us into trouble – and he wasn’t worth it’ (Greenaway 1989: 80). But crime and outrage bring no real consequences for anyone within the privileged sanctuary of the restaurant.
Greenaway is a great explicator of his own work, and is very clear about his formalist, anti-realist position as a filmmaker: ‘Every time you watch a Greenaway movie, you know you are definitely and absolutely only watching a movie. It’s not a slice of life, and not a window on the world. It’s by no means an exemplum of anything “natural” or “real”’ (Smith 1990: 59). Statements such as these come straight out of high Modernist, early twentieth-century aesthetics, and to that extent are perfectly traditional, in their own way. Even the title can be read as a critical perspective on mainstream cinema: just three names would read better in terms of conventional expectations: The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. As an audience, we would know what to expect as we settled in our seats. But then there is also The Cook, a contriver of menus, surely a figure for the Director himself. The disconcerting title is an example of Greenaway working against classical film narrative expectations, and just as A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) and Drowning By Numbers (1988) were structured by the alphabet and number counts respectively, The Cook is zoned by colour: blue for exterior reality, green for the creative kitchen, red for the excessive eating floor, white for the restrooms.
Greenaway’s alienating, formalist practice is evident right from the opening credits sequence. A steadily rising crane shot of scaffolding beneath the floor of the sound stage on which the action is being filmed demonstrates a purely Brechtian manner by ‘baring the device’, by foregrounding the artifice of film in general, and this film in particular. Scarlet-clad flunkies pull back curtains to reveal the theatrical mise en scène, where two delivery vans, one for meat, one for seafood, symmetrically frame the action. The opulent restaurant itself is redolent of consumer excesses of the late 80s. Two of the decade’s style gurus were on hand to advise: Jean Paul Gaultier designed costumes for the waiters and waitresses, and Giorgio Locatelli of the Savoy Hotel, London, created fantasy food for display. Albert Spica’s table is itself a vulgarian spectacle, dominated by a massive reproduction of Frans Hals’ ‘The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard Company’ (1616). Spica and his retinue are dressed in amateur-dramatic copies of the uniforms worn by Hals’ officers, who were for Greenaway, ‘a gang of people all dressed up with nowhere to go’ (Denham 1993: 26).