If ever a film has demonstrated the absurdity of the Motion Picture Association of America rating system, it is Peter Greenaway's harrowing The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. No particular religious traditions are violated here. The nasty-word quotient is far lower than in the typical Ramboesque vengeance film. The nudity, granted, is straight-on. But unclad women are not unusual in R-rated movies, and unless a man is, in the phraseology of the day, tumescent—and the man here is not—even male nudity needn't earn a movie the irksome X. Still, the Torquemadas at the MPAA slapped an X on the film.
Greenaway refused to alter his work. And the distributor refused to release it with the X attached, so the movie now wends its way through America unrated.
In fact, Greenaway could not have gotten a better rating by changing one single scene. It is the overall content of the film that sets its detractors' teeth on edge. Whether anybody sashays through the cook's kitchen naked or not, whether anybody makes the beast with two backs in the pantry or not, whether anything specific happens or not, the tone is of such savage intensity and the theme so achingly dyspeptic—not to mention so wonderfully derisive of consumerism and selfishness—that to see it and to take seriously what one sees is to be jolted, if not unnerved.
Most of Greenaway's output during the past quarter century has not been seen in the United States. And only his The Draughtsman's Contract, something of a Renaissance murder mystery, and A Zed and Two Noughts, something fairly indescribable about twins and zoos and absolute commitment to an idée fixe, have drawn the sort of attention that would alert intrepid filmgoers to what awaits them in Cook.
Greenaway is not shy about commenting on just what his movies are about, but what he says isn't necessarily what he means—and even when he says just what he means, his movies don't necessarily mean to others what they mean to him. They are in a sense litmus tests of the moviegoer's own value system. While not as bizarre as Zed or as refined and spooky as Draughtsman's Contract, Cook is their match in provoking widely (and sometimes wildly) differing responses.
Some assume that Greenaway's work, especially this one, is an indictment of conservative, particularly Thatcherite, politics. Others have remarked that it seems more an indictment of gluttony. Still others, perhaps awed by the amazing color palette, have focused on the supposed hidden meanings of colors themselves. Greenaway's own comments differ from one interview to another.
Cook seems to be a rigorous, even painful excursion into the phenomenon of fending off the ordinary ravages of life by indulging in sensual pleasures, particularly eating, having sex, and tyrannizing others. If the latter doesn't seem sensual to you, it does to many—among them Henry Kissinger, who is said to have remarked that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
Here, in the thief, Albert (Michael Gambon), we've the horrific sensualist as powermad tyrant. He humiliates his wife in every imaginable way. He degrades servants, passersby, and his mother. He does this nightly at the same restaurant, Le Hollandais, which is run by the cook, Richard (Richard Bohringer). Albert's patronage seems to be the primary reason for the restaurant's success.
His wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) manifestly detests Albert's vulgarity and his plodding crew of underlings. She finds her salvation not in the devouring of gorgeous meals but in having sex, more or less between courses and as a way of testing dangerously the limits of Albert's obtuseness. Georgina spots an ordinary-looking fellow across the room (Alan Howard), who reads as he eats—perhaps his escape from mere hedonism. She connects with him in a bathroom and thereafter enjoys his most intimate company in, among other places, Richard's kitchen. Eventually they flee from Albert to the lover's book depository, where he specializes in collecting, and presumably selling, tomes on the French Revolution. There for a brief time they enjoy the fullness of their lust undisturbed.
As outlined Cook sounds unexceptional. On that level, it is merely another movie about adultery and male abuse of women. But Greenaway uses plot as thread to bind together ideas and sensations, not the latter to flesh out plot. What so brutally disrupts an audience's accustomed indifference is not the story but the intensity of its presentation: its use, for example, of a throbbingly monotonous, almost maddeningly insistent score by Michael Nyman, music that reminds some of Philip Glass's work but has little of Glass's comforting quality.
Greenaway's use of color is equally calculated. Five colors set the stage: blue, for the outside back of the restaurant where meats rot in trucks; red, in the restaurant's grand salon; green, in the cavernous kitchen; white, in the bathrooms; and yellow or golden pale brown in the book depository. Who but Greenaway would have characters' clothing change color the instant they pass from one milieu to the next? Possibly the color shifts are mere conceits; I can't quite piece together the actual meaning of the color shifts themselves, though obviously the colors in context are appropriate, even tritely so. Still, if this film really is about insistently (almost compulsively) serious attention to getting the most out of what feels good, then the colors take on, somehow, the meaning of their place, as if we're being teased a bit about what is and what is not appropriate in which locale.
The film throbs with ambiguities, among them a scullion of surpassing loveliness, who sings in a glorious soprano and is verbally tormented and physically mutilated by the thief. For much of the film, the child might as well be a girl as a boy. And the precise nature of the relationship between the thief and the restaurateur is unclear: Does the thief own or in some way part-own the restaurant?
But Greenaway also enjoys lobbing unsophisticated ironies at his audience: the dining room is dominated by a huge Frans Hals painting of distinguished Dutch burghers banqueting, in front of which, without much ado, Albert and his coterie strike on one occasion an identical pose.
Some people might prefer a detailed analysis of the symbols in Cook, but I doubt that any is possible without reducing the film to numbers. It is idiosyncratic and in many ways an excursion into the mind of the movie patron, as much as into the particular crotchets of the moviemaker.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover ends on two notes: savagery and vengeance through an act of utter barbarism. The movie invites us less to wonder what's going on in the backroom kitchens of posh eateries than to ponder what's going on in the frontal lobes of everybody we encounter. It disorients because it wholly dispenses with civility while nestling primarily in a temple of la plus haute cuisine. Truly, an X rating is not only ridiculous here, but superfluous.
Contributing Editor David Brudnoy is WBZ Radio's evening talk host and film critic for the TAB newspapers in Massachusetts.