Monday, January 7, 2013

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway)

A gourmet parable.

Even before I became a full-fledged cinephile, I was already more than aware of the "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover's" notoriety as a taboo-breaking motion picture that navigates around the question of whether or not films with such abhorring themes can really pass as adequate art. For films like this, audience polarization is all but given. But with the history of cinema itself to finely attest and creations like "Pink Flamingos" and "Last Tango in Paris" as lasting proofs, only time can really tell if whether or not thematically questionable films may dwindle into obscurity or shine ever brighter. In "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover's" case and the two other aforementioned films, it's definitely the latter. Personally, only a few films have simultaneously left me in both revolting disgust and stunning awe; count this great, great film as one of the handfuls.
Directed by the subversive British filmmaker Peter Greenaway, "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover" is a poetic shock tale about infidelity, ruthlessness and revenge with a gourmet twist. Anchored by Michael Gambon's intensely frightening (yet also comedic) performance as the gangster cum restaurant owner Albert Spica and Helen Mirren's understated turn as his wife Georgina, the film often takes on a very stagy quality fitting of its highly surrealistic tone. Together, they have both showcased what I think are the best performances that I've seen in quite a while.
Right now, fresh from seeing Michael Gambon's wicked portrayal as Mr. Spica, it's really just quite hard to imagine that the very same actor has also more than convincingly played the post-Richard Harris Dumbledore in the Harry Potter film series. The same goes for Helen Mirren, who has just disappeared into the role of the very sensual Georgina that it's quite a tricky mind exercise to muster the fact that she still has enough acting skills (and insane at that) left to pull off the Queen of England herself in an Oscar-winning turn many years later.
But aside from the performances, that which also includes Alan Howard's realistic portrayal of Georgina's mild-mannered lover and Richard Bohringer's symbolic embodiment of the defiant chef, much is to be lovingly observed and deliciously absorbed in this film. One of them, although some may see it as a mere production foot note, is the exquisitely transitional costume design (done by Jean Paul Gaultier, whom, weird enough, I have first heard about in "American Psycho"), whose color-coded elegance contrasts with the film's visual and thematic depiction of decay. Oh and there's also the set design, which greatly detaches the film from the organic nature of reality, and the cinematography, an aspect that exceptionally characterizes the film with an ironic degree of formalism albeit its relentless display of grotesqueries.
In a nutshell, I think "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover" can be simply sufficed as an operatic comedy of bizarre proportions. Yet on one hand, I think it can also be labeled as a humorously dramatic disembowelment of the superficiality of modern manners. But then, there's also, as what many has claimed, the film's supposedly metaphorical attack on Margaret Thatcher's politics. Though I am sadly quite ignorant of Thatcherism (but I do know of its strict adherence towards privatization among others), it is really not that hard to look beyond the surface of the film and unearth its underlying sociopolitical layer, what with its disturbingly symbolic depiction of the 'ruler' (Albert) and the 'ruled' (Georgina, the chef and all the other characters).
"The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover", despite of its satirical attack on Britain's political milieu at the time of its release, is still a timeless achievement in niche filmmaking, especially in how it has made the bizarre look tasteful and vice versa. Also, this is the first time that I have seen a film where infidelity was depicted as if justified, and its perpetrators not as advantageous offenders but as romantic heroes. Now, if only I can see this on the big screen…


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