The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover – 1989
Director – Peter Greenaway
Starring – Helen Mirren, Richard Bohringer, and Michael Gambon
By far, the most dramatic visual statement a film can make is the use of color. The use of color in a film, any film, immediately sets for the audience and then maintains the tone of the story throughout the rest of the film. Amongst all of the important elements of filmmaking, plot, acting, directing, art direction, editing, etc., the choice of how to present your film’s color scheme is arguably the most immediate and subjective choice you can make. A very washed out color palette says something completely different from say a very saturated one, or even a monochromatic one. From the first frame the audience is instantly on board and facing the direction you’ve pointed them.
Despite all the nastiness, pain and anger this film has on display, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is such a lush and visually sumptuous exercise in color use, that a critique or review could be written solely on its use and impact alone (although I’ll try to touch on other stuff too). Peter Greenaway, angry with the political climate in Britain loaded this film with vitriol aimed at the Thatcher government that was in power during the making of this film in the 80s. Thanks to my limited knowledge of 1980’s England, the not so subtle symbolism and rather heavy-handed commentary on the state of his home nation was all but completely over my head. Thankfully, however, that didn’t take away from the overall message of the film, nor on the long-lasting aftertaste it left in my brain.
To start with, I should mention that the entire film is shot in the confines of or immediately outside of a fancy french restaurant, each area of which is dressed in its own specific color. The exterior of the restaurant is blue, the kitchen green, the dining room red, and the ladies room is white. Not only that, but each of the character’s clothes change to match the setting when they go from one to the next. (ie: as a character moves from the kitchen to the dining room, their clothes change from green to red, etc…) Not only does this stay constant, but each color is indicative of the character who dominates that setting. The blazing, angry gangster holds court in the dining room. The ladies room represents a sanctuary for the adulterous couple. The kitchen is the realm of the cook, and the outside represents the real world. There is one exception, however. Michael, the rather nebbish man who captures the eye of the gangster’s wife, is always clad in a rather drab brown color. He is the exception to the color rule, he is his own constant.
The thief of the title refers to Albert Spica, mercilessly and ravenously played to the hilt by Michael Gambon. Spica is a gangster of the most reprehensible variety, used to getting his way through intimidation, anger, and violence. Spica dominates and controls (or tries to) everyone around him. While I doubt very much that Thatcher and her cronies went so far as to actually spread shit on her enemies, taking what was theirs, and leaving them bloodied and broken, he apparently represents her, and her government.
His much abused, much put-upon wife Georgina, played somehow still gracefully by Helen Mirren, stands for the trampled citizenry of Britannia. Her dutiful acceptance and depressing outlook on this relationship is indicative of most abusive relationships whether they’re between two people or on a much larger, country-sized scale. This subservient behavior that typifies Georgina from the beginning of the film, is immediately thrown off track when she connects with a quiet, lonely soul who represents everything that her gangster is not. To Georgina, Michael represents safety, happiness (or at the very least less sadness), and something more than simple survival. The first half of this romance is purely visual, as it transcends the boundaries represented by the different rooms and their colors. It is fully halfway into the film before we even hear Michael utter his first word. As I mentioned before, his is the only characters’ color scheme that never changes. He wears a consistently brown colored suit throughout the film, which helps exemplify the inherent stability, and staid nature of his character.
The cook, of the film’s title, acts as an overseer. Not so much an omnipotent god as an observer. He is privy to more information than everyone else in the film, but unlike a simple observer, he does tend to meddle a bit. Since he has a rather strong dislike, with good reason, for the brash, un-refined gangster that has hijacked his restaurant, he helps to facilitate, and even protect the blossoming love between Georgina and Michael. Where as Michael has limited to no ability to stand up to Spica, the Cook is at times outright defiant. He is more than willing to poke this dangerous man’s ego with a stick, because the thing he loves most (his restaurant) has already been taken from him, and he has little left to lose, save his dignity.
The film is certainly bit heavy handed, however, I don’t think it would have had the same impact or effect if it had been treated otherwise. Large bold strokes are required here to convey the hurt, the anger, and the sadness of this film. It was said by another essayist that the nudity of the film isn’t so much revealing as it is exposing. This couldn’t be more true. The numerous sexual encounters between Georgina and Michael are equally about opening up, showing off flaws, and fear of trust, as they are about intimacy, arousal, and lust. The glamour and sensuality of it isn’t gone really, but juxtaposed with the violence and inhumanity demonstrated by Gambon’s Spica, it has a much more comforting effect. It makes them, and us, feel safe and connected, and what a wonderful way to use sex in a film.
With everything it has to say, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover really needs to be watched more than once to glean all you can from it. Despite the difference in tone and message, and despite the rather disparate nature of the films I’m about to compare it to, there is a definite connection between this film and something like the Three Color Trilogy (Bleu, Blanc, and Rouge), by Krzysztof Kieslowski, the films of Jean Pierre Jeunet (especially Amelie), and to a much different yet no less important extent, some of the films of Paul Schrader, especially Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters for it’s use of color, Affliction for it’s use of tone and message, and Auto Focus for it’s mixing of both of these things. This film is defintely worthy of your attention. I was certainly glad I gave it mine.