Peter Greenaway’s 1989 magnum opus of skin, excrement, violence and gallows humor opens with restaurateur Albert (Michael Gambon) smearing dog feces all over a young man that he then has stripped naked outside. Albert introduces his wife to the man, “This is my wife Georgina Spica, she’s got a heart of gold and a body to match” then himself, “I am Albert Spica and I have a heart of gold and a great deal of money to match” and then the victim “And you are Roy, who’s got absolutely nothing, except what you owe me. You are humiliated in front of a lady, you are humiliated in front of us”. At this point, Roy is naked and in a near fetal position on the ground under Albert to which he sets the tone for what is to follow in the next 120 minutes: “Now I’ve given you a good dinner, and you can have a nice drink” – he then unzips his pants and urinates all over Roy – “Now you behave yourself in the future and pay when I ask you or next time I’ll make you eat your own shit after forcing it through your dick like toothpaste”. End scene.
When THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, AND HER LOVER was released in 1989, Entertainment Weekly started their review noting that Greenaway “…holds the ugliest view of mankind ever put forth by a maker of feature films”. Hyperbole, to be sure, but not much more provocative than the work and/or the filmmaker in question. Greenaway’s work has always seemed designed to provoke, from the twin zoologist sexual obsession drama of A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985) to the sexually outlandish period dramas of PROSPERO’S BOOKS (1991) and THE PILLOW BOOK (1996). Greenaway has never kept his eccentricities, desires or (perhaps misguided) intentions in check. And with as exquisitely perverse and demanding as his work happens to be – pitch perfectly on display in this film’s opening minutes – who would want him to?
THE COOK, THE THIEF, THE WIFE, AND HER LOVER came around at a time when convoluted neo-noir was a sort of call to arms and the twisty thriller was becoming increasingly erotic, sadistic and – as a result – financially viable. Greenaway’s film is a different beast, and he wouldn’t have it any other way, but it’s hard to not see how it follows mid-to-late 80s works like BODY DOUBLE (1984), BLUE VELVET (1986), ANGEL HEART (1987), BLACK WIDOW (1987) and D.O.A (1988). Unlike the majority of those titles – if not all – Greenaway’s work does away with any sort of likable protagonist and makes everyone reprehensible. Just imagine if BLUE VELVET had Frank Booth in every role and you can get the idea. Without delving too far into synopsis here, the film’s basic plot involves a marriage, stuff that interrupts said marriage and a whole lot of eating, fucking and revenging. It’s sort of like a more restrained, contemporary CALIGULA (1979) only vastly more appetizing.
The talent on screen may make one question Greenaway’s tendency to exploit but everyone seems fairly game to portray the sins of their characters, and usually with surprising conviction. Gambon is easily the over-the-top star here, shouting nearly all of his lines and dropping bits like “I think those Ethiopians enjoy starving. Keeps them thin and graceful.” to make sure the audience’s jaw hasn’t stopped dropping just yet. Mirren is scantily clad for most of the film’s run-time and engages in her fair share of mis-conduct on plenty of occasions. Plus, she gets to utter the scene – if not film – stealing line “Try the cock, Albert. It’s a delicacy, and you know where it’s been” which may represent the film better than its excrement filled opening.
THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE and HER LOVER isn’t the first – and definitely won’t be the last – time that food and sex have narratively co-existed. 1973’s LA GRANDE BOUFFE features a story in which a group of people (comprised of married men and hired prostitutes) travel to an Italian villa to have orgies and eat themselves to death; 1982’s EATING RAOUL features a timid couple posing as swingers to lure sexually deviant people to their apartment only to kill them and steal their money for the purposes of opening a restaurant with potential cannibalism involved. However, seldom have the two been seemingly portrayed as similarly as they are here. Food and sex in Greenway’s film appear to be interchangeable for both as equally consumable, exchangeable and punishable. And punishment there is. You better finish your meal and finish your fuck before Albert arrives or you’re likely to end up as the next meal(s).