Friday, April 30, 2021

Art House Watch: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)

Watched:  04/28/2021
Format:  Peacock (of all places)
Viewing:  Second
Decade:  1980's
Director:  Peter Greenaway

Back in the merry old days of first arriving at college, living on campus at UT Austin was a perfect sort of thing to do if you were a movie nut - or turn you into one.  I could walk to Dobie Theater and catch international and art film, Hogg Auditorium was basically rented by a student society of some sort who brought in Hong Kong films.*   The Memorial Union Theater was open at the time and programmed by some serious film nerds, so that's where, my first night on campus, I wandered down to see Tie Me Up, Tie Me  Down with kids I had never met before but who lived a few doors down.  

Anyway, I was not unaware of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) in high school.  I was known to drive into town to go catch a movie at the River Oaks or wherever some interesting stuff was showing - and I may have seen the poster of Helen Mirren in lingerie and given the poster a longer than necessary look.  Or maybe a cover in the video store.  Anyhoo, early Freshman year at some point (I really think in the first weeks of school), we headed down to the Memorial Union and caught the film.  And my brain kind of melted.

I'd genuinely never seen anything like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and I'm not sure I have again since.  I was a theatre kid, so the sets and structure made sense to me in a "of the theater" manner, but it was at once also uniquely and absolutely cinematic.  You could approximate what they'd done in the live theater, but it would never be the same as what Greenaway managed to capture on film.  

Over the years, I've had a hard time tracking the film down.  Versions on Amazon never seemed to be Region 1, and it doesn't get much cable play - mostly because the film is an absolute horror show, I'd guess.  I've been unaware of a Criterion edition or other American release.  

So, imagine my surprise when I looked up the movie again recently to see where it might be streaming, and the answer came back:  Peacock.  Yeah, there beside old episodes of Parks N Rec and Saved by the Bell, you can watch man's inhumanity to man unspool in saturated technicolor.  But you also will sit through innumerable inserts of Capitol One ads and Jennifer Garner loudly chirping at you.  

About the movie itself: 

It's nearly impossible to imagine the movie produced today, but the film makes sense within the context of the late 80's - late 90's arthouse film scene which has long since evaporated.  Maybe you'd see the imagery or even grotesque characterizations as part of a longer, more traditional narrative now.  But the relentlessness of the film is part of what makes it both so memorable and unique.  Broken into segments, each presented with a menu, there's a growing understanding of the cruelty of our villain, the Thief - aka Mr. Spica.  As well as the cruelty of those who hang about him.  

Released today, pages would drip ink about the comparisons to Spica and our former president, let alone those who ride alongside Spica, hanging to his coattails.  Petty thugs and criminals (including a very young Tim Roth) who have lucked into aligning with a crook who believes he's found legitimacy and can place himself among what he imagines to be the upper crust as he attempts to adopt the correct manners and accoutrements of society, none of which he has the affinity for.  It would be an embarrassment if he had self-awareness, something that flickers to light once in a while as he detects shame even if he's not sure why.   Or, it would be an embarrassment if the society diners around them noted the barbarianism at the central table instead of quietly consuming their meals.

The restaurant is owned by Spica, who seems to have come on late as an investor, but is run by Richard, The Cook, a man who is just past the realization of what he has compromised in order to have his dream restaurant as it turns to nightmare.  Curiously, this movie is also the first time I ever saw "kitchen culture" depicted on film, and it all looks far more familiar in 2021 than it did in 1993 - but Richard runs his kitchen as a beloved benevolent leader more than dictator - his nerves frayed with the obnoxious new owner.

The wife is Helen Mirren - the trod upon but beautiful wife of the Spice, Georgina.  All that Spica is trying to achieve in the ways of refinement, she has grasped.  While he's a savage at heart, Georgina has disappeared into books and into herself, trying to stay alive from the abuse, both verbal and physical (and, as we learn, sexual).  She's a shell of victim, trying to keep her own light aflame when she stumbles upon Michael - a quiet gentleman dining alone with his books.  

An affair begins, aided by Richard who hides the couple in his restaurant as Spica carries on.  

A miracle of production design, art direction and visual styling, it suffers on the small screen in a way I rarely feel movies do.  Yes, an individual shot or sequence may have infinitely more impact on the big screen in many movies, but this movie was meant to encompass your field of vision and demand your attention.  The compositions are not always friendly to being shrunk down to the size of even my not-tiny television.  Often, the edge of the screen feels like the proscenium, and with the large, open sets of the car park, the kitchen, the dining room and the lavatories, and strict adherence to the 180 degree rule, it can feel positively theatrical.  Color palettes are chosen with care, each set of the five or six primary sets we see in the film are meticulously detailed, from placement of background characters and their wardrobes to how the characters are places at their table.

All of it serves the story rather acts as a location where the story takes place.  Even at 18 I was marveling at the boldness of choice (and this is were it's cinema rather than a play), when characters pass from room to room, their clothes changing to match the set - and what that tells us about each space and the characters in it.  

The presentation of food and food culture and how it plays into ideas of class, illusion of class and civilization - and the mixing in of sex among the food could take far more time and space than I'm going to allot to this post to deconstruct.  Some of it's obvious, especially in an era and time when we pat ourselves on the back for spending money on fancy-assed meals so we can tell others we've been to the newest restaurant.**  Some of it needs more unpacking.  

But, look, this movie is sold as a "black comedy", and it is that.  But it's also cruel, grotesque, and pushes envelopes no one in particular was asking to have pushed.  It's also starkly frank about sex, sexual desire, and sexuality turned to something bent and broken.  Still, I've been walking around with the film in the back of my head for going on 30 years, and finally just got back to it.  And, man, like I say, 30 years on it's more relevant than ever.  

This is, I believe, the only Peter Greenaway I've seen.  A somewhat surprising feat as he has 77 directing credits to his IMDB, a good 40-50 of them seem to be features.  I am curious to look into more of his work.  And, frankly, I'd like to revisit this film sooner rather than later.  

*that's where I saw John Woo and Jackie Chan films for the first time.  On the big screen, no less!  I was 18 and was like "who is this Michelle Yeoh, and may I please watch her forever?" and the universe said "sure, buddy.  We'll just give her a wildly unlikely career where she stars in stuff you'd want to see, anyway, well into your forties"  And that's how me and the universe became pals.

**if COVID has saved me from anything, it's been the requirement to stay even remotely current with Austin's ridiculously trendy restaurants which has become both sport and a badge of superior character.  

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