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‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’ (NC-17)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 07, 1990

In "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," British director Peter Greenaway is audacious enough to stage a metaphor so grand, so lavishly comprehensive, that it can stand as a final, definitive assessment of the state of Western civilization. Of necessity, his thinking is global and his vision retrospective. To articulate his views, he references politics, art, economics, even fashion, finding room in the film's densely eclectic visual design for both Jean-Paul Gaultier, who designed the costumes, and the Dutch master Frans Hals. Yet his conclusions, when boiled down to their essence, couldn't be more basic: As a culture, we are what we eat -- or, to take it even further, what we eliminate. If anatomy is destiny, then it's the bowels that dictate history, it's the bowels that rule. Greenaway, the bemused, coolly ironic truth-teller, has painted a cruel portrait for a cruel time. The film is savagely confrontational, and its assaults begin almost immediately. In the opening divertissement, Spica, Greenaway's gangster protagonist, demonstrates to a victim the price of not keeping up in his payments by stripping him down and force-feeding him excrement. This bestial prelude, which culminates with Spica relieving himself on his victim, sets the movie's brutally scatological tone. And before the film's end, the director will have showcased a vast number of perversions, including cannibalism, to make the emphatic point that we are craven, puerile animals, choking on our own waste.

The bulk of the action takes place in a cavernous temple of haute cuisine called Le Hollandais, where Spica (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Georgina (Helen Mirren), dine every night, surrounded by the boss man's scurrilous gang of lackeys. In symbolic terms, Spica is the ultimate consumer -- a glutton ruled entirely by his amoral drive to gobble down everything and everyone in sight. In Greenaway's scheme of things, he is the incarnation of pure capitalist evil. But, watching the film, you get the impression that while he's condemned for being a bully and a sadist, for brutalizing his wife and, eventually, killing the Lover (Alan Howard) she takes up with at the restaurant during her visits to the loo, his greatest crime is that he has appalling table manners and mispronounces the names of the French dishes on the menu.

Just how revelatory you think this is depends, I suppose, on your orientation. With all its allusions to high culture, its imperial camera movements, classically composed tableaux and opulent production design, the film certainly carries the air of profundity. But perhaps "air" is the wrong word to use for a work this full of puke and rot and fornication. After a time, you begin to feel soiled by the film's excesses. Yet the excesses, alone, aren't the issue. An artist like David Lynch, director of "Blue Velvet," violates taboos, but not simply for shock effect. He carries us inside the primal secrets that spawned them and shows why they affect us so profoundly. Greenaway, on the other hand, seems content to ride on the energy released by simply being naughty, without concerning himself with what's underneath. He exploits taboos, cheaply, without exploring them.

Primarily, what Greenaway has showcased are his sexual aversions and his distrust of the flesh; this is the work of the most alienated of misanthropes. When Greenaway puts naked bodies on the screen -- say, in the love scenes between Mirren and Howard -- there's no sex, there's merely the director's palpable disdain for the human body. And perhaps it's because the artist hasn't made clear the connections between his film's social message and his personal preoccupations that the work seems so morally neutral.

Greenaway doesn't flinch from the sordidness he chronicles, but because he has so thoroughly aestheticized the film, scenes like the one in which Georgina has Richard, the film's Cook (Richard Bohringer), bake up her lover's corpse for her husband, lose their power to disturb, even to shock. After the film's first few minutes I watched, neither entertained nor illuminated, with something close to total indifference.

By giving the film an "X" rating, the Motion Picture Association of America has made heroes of the director and his distribution company, which is now forced to release the picture unrated, under more challenging circumstances. Certainly, the artist should have the freedom to express himself, and Miramax should be praised for its decision to release the film as is. But Greenaway's ideas are far too facile and chicly reductionist for "Cook" to deserve revolutionary status. His extravagances and attacks on taste seem less like the bravery of the courageous artist than the empty desperation of a charlatan.

"The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover" contains both male and female nudity, cannibalism, and examples of coprophagy.

Copyright The Washington Post

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