Monday, August 08, 2005

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

Synesthesia is a physical condition in which one or more of the five senses are somehow overlapped. For certain synesthetics, music can be seen; for others, sounds can be tasted. It's a fascinating concept, and it has certainly enchanted Peter Greenaway, whose work in cinema frequently attempts to make film more than just a visual and auditory experience. In The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), Greenaway overlays the sense of taste upon the sense of touch. Taking place almost entirely in a fancy French restaurant in London, the film centers itself around food, eating, and the inherent sensuality therein.

In his review, Roger Ebert claims that the film is a political allegory savagely lambasting Margaret Thatcher and a commentary on modern times in general, in which the greedy rich cruelly oppress the poor. While this model certainly applies (Ebert has a nice summary of it in his review), the form in which Greenaway presents the film suggests that there's much more to it than just the metaphor suggested by the plot. The art direction, camerawork, and music in this movie all speak to an exploration of pleasure.

As the title of the film suggests, there are four major characters: a cook, a thief, his wife, and her lover. The cook is a Frenchman named Richard. The thief is a crime boss named Albert and he owns the restaurant where Richard works as head chef. Albert and his wife Georgina - accompanied by Albert's gang of thugs - go to Richard's restaurant for dinner every night, where Albert bullies the other patrons and the staff and where, one night, Georgina meets her lover. Bored with her husband's crude and banal conversation, Georgina scans the room and catches the eye of a lone diner, whom - she notices - has just received the same specially prepared dish as she did. She gets up to go to the bathroom. He follows her and they make passionate love.

What Richard, Georgina, and her lover Michael have in common - and what Albert lacks - is an appreciation for beauty and a love of the finer pleasures in life. In short, they have taste. While Albert pretends to have taste by dabbling in the restaurant business and lecturing his gang of philistines on culture, the other three actually live a life of genuine taste. Richard does so through his artful cuisine, Georgina through her passion and elegance, and Michael through his tenderness and intellect.

Greenaway's camera highlights this character difference through rhythm, sound, and color. Long, lyrical takes accompanied by a subtly pervasive musical theme turn every collective movement into a kind of dance. When Michael and Georgina sneak off together, surrounded by the swirling movements of the restaurant staff, it is a thing of beauty, rather than a dishonest and sneaky expression of illicit passion. Combined with the only somewhat gimmicky effect of having the character's costumes change color as they move from one setting to another (bright red for the main dining room, pure white for the bathroom, and smokey green for the kitchen), the camerawork and scoring serve to make the lovers and Richard become a part of their surroundings and their surroundings become a part of them. Albert, on the other hand, stands in contrast to his environs, moving violently and arhythmically, creating cacophony instead of music.

The affair that Michael and Georgina carry on at dinner every night, the affair that Richard helps them to hide by allowing them to use the extra spaces in his kitchen, and the affair that Albert never notices himself in spite of the fact that it's being carried out directly under his nose, is a testament to this distinction between Albert and the others. Like the pleasures of eating, the pleasures of the flesh require a fine palate. While the others have this, Albert does not. Although his actions may make the others unhappy, he is - entirely independent of them - completely incapable of happiness and enjoyment; he cannot even understand the pleasures in which they partake.

Sadly, what the film accomplishes visually, it does not accomplish narratively. Other than the brilliantly brutish performance by Michael Gambon as Albert, the acting is mediocre. For much of the earlier portions of the movie, the other characters speak very little or not at all and as soon as they start talking one can't help but wish they'd stayed that way. The greatest crime committed by this movie, however, is the complete misuse of the extremely talented Tim Roth, who plays Albert's right-hand man. His character speaks only a few lines and the camera lingers over him hesitantly and confusingly, as if unable to decide whether he's important or not. He constantly lingers on the periphery, as if Greenaway is paying him lip service because he knows that Roth is too good for this role, which is entirely insignificant to the plot.

The beauty and style of the film do make up for the acting and narrative missteps, and for that reason I do like the movie, but there are better options out there. If it's Greenaway and his obsession with synesthesia and pleasure that interests you, see his film The Pillow Book (1996), which replaces food with literature and shows how the pleasures of reading overlap with the pleasures of the flesh. On the other hand, the stunningly beautiful Wong Kar-Wai masterpiece In the Mood for Love (2000) - which very well may have drawn some inspiration from The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover - does a far better job in coordinating and choreographing the movements of the characters and the camera into a breathtaking ballet while also telling a compelling emotional story.


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