Saturday, March 19, 2011

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #18: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan in Winter 2008). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.

Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is not as widely viewed as it should be.  Call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure that could have something to do with it not being in print on DVD in the states.  I mean, this is a film that shouldn't just be available to rent, it should probably be canonized into the Criterion Collection and remastered for blu-ray. Why?  Because it's dirty pretty in that way that only  baroque pieces from the late 80's and early-90's can be.  Because it's all about color symbolism and painterly settings and visually representing its complex metaphors.  Also, because (spoiler alert?) more stories should be able to manage a really satisfying scene of cannibalism.  It's a lavish, vulgar, graphically (in all definitions) daring bit of cinema...which I found really pretty awesome. 

The film is a sweeping, twisted allegorical presentation of Thatcherian England from a man who is very clearly pissed off.  I can't claim to know or understand the exact sentiments of British folks during this time, but the film's barely veiled plays with symbolism seem to extend a constantly raised middle finger to the folks in charge.  Michael Gambon, who many know only as Dumbledore, is here one of the vilest villains ever to appear on screen.  He's titular thief Albert Spica, a gluttonous, brutish character who owns the restaurant the film is set in, and who frequents it night after night; entertaining a posse of scared idiots as he gorges himself, abuses people who displease him, and harasses his silently aloof wife Georgina (Helen Mirren).  It's a life of complete excess in which food, sex, and violence are almost interchangeable.  Art is nothing, culture is nothing, greed is everything.  Spica, as criminal, is government. Ebert gave the best summation when he wrote "Thief = Thatcher's arrogance and support of the greedy. Wife = Britannia Lover = Ineffectual opposition by leftists and intellectuals." [source]   Add to that a heaping dose of cynicism on the general nature of man (Greenaway definitely seems to run his characters according to bestial instincts) and serve.  Together, the players move through a world of very nearly hamfisted representation.  The restaurant is a hellish red in the dining room Spica practically lives in while the women's restroom is a heavenly, pristine white.  As she catches the eye of the Lover and takes up an affair with him (in the lavatory, in the freezer, in the kitchen,etc), Georgina is very nearly trapped Persephone getting her brief respite from the Underworld before getting dragged back down to her own personal shitshow.   

Of course, the film was (and I think still might be) hugely controversial.  Apart from its NC-17 rating, critics still love to spend time slamming its half baked color scheme and transparent, gratuitous use of cliche metaphor.  Here's where I step off the high horse of pretending to wax all pretentious about this and just tell you what's what.  Fuck that noise, man.  While there may be some forced allegory going on, it seems to be for a purpose.  Apart from adding significantly to the lavish art direction and visual appeal of the film, it's a political statement that doesn't seem to want to waste time obscuring its message.  If Greenaway was mad he was mad right then and not waiting for someone to catch on years later.  As controversial, violence-ridden, over-sexed political attacks go, this one manages to be a hell of a lot more succinct than Sweet Movie. And a lot more palatable, too.    
The thing about The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is that the savagery is just so brilliantly micromanaged that I have to admit I enjoyed it.  It's sort of like Kubrick hooked up with Merchant Ivory and left Sally Potter to move bits and pieces of whatever she chose around the set while Derek Jarman served as consultant.  The film is luxe and vibrant in the most detestably glorious of ways.  When it practices its horrors, they're less the horrors of reality and more like one of those Renaissance paintings exhibiting all manner of atrocities. While it may not depict anything the average audience would like to see, it goes all out and doesn't screw around.  I mean, this movie has two huge things going for it outside of the art direction:  let's talk about Dame Helen Mirren and cannibalism, shall we?  Dame Helen Mirren is almost always awesome.  Cannibalism can frequently make for really memorable cinema. Combine the two elements, and you get a pitch perfect level of DisturbingAwesome.  Seriously.  The final scene is incredible.  It hits with such a high magnitude that you'll still be feeling the shockwaves weeks later.  It's a brilliant ending that manages to one up the human meat cookery in Sweeney Todd and Titus Andronicus in terms of spectacle and the absolute bluntness of its revenge elements.  THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A GOOD REVENGE SCENE. This is fact. Hard fact. Requited love may make us happy, but a well-executed, well-deserved revenge sequence makes us cheer.  It's cathartic when a villain gets what's coming to them.  And...Spoilers spoilers spoilers: this one has a very good, very morally ambiguous revenge that's tragic even as it takes no prisoners.  In what may be the oddest thing about Greenaway's film, it manages to conclude almost optimistically.  After a couple hours of animalism, he allows his characters to make one large step towards a darkly shaded light.  It's a strange moment, and it resonates.


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