It’s probably safe to say that the British director Peter Greenaway holds the ugliest view of mankind ever put forth by a maker of feature films. To let the audience know where he stands, he opens his latest outrage, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, with the protagonist, a loathsome cockney gangster (i.e., the Thief) named Albert (Michael Gambon), standing in a restaurant parking lot smearing one of his foes with dog excrement.
From there, the action moves inside the spectacularly plush, red velvet restaurant, where the gangster — who’s also a gourmand — spends most of the movie in a sustained, ranting tirade. Between dishing out poisonous streams of abuse to his wife (Helen Mirren) and fellow patrons, he keeps issuing fulsome descriptions of the fabulous dishes he’s eating. Soon, a plot develops: The Thief’s wife sneaks off to the restroom and commences a lusty affair with one of the patrons — a mild-mannered bookshop proprietor (Alan Howard). When the adultery is discovered, the movie turns into a hideously cruel revenge melodrama, an exploitation fantasy done with bodily fluids instead of guns. The final effect is (deliberately) repulsive enough to have won the film an X rating for its ”overall tone.”
Greenaway isn’t your dime-store misanthrope. He’s a genuine obsessive — an exuberantly sick sado-fetishist who directs like an avant-garde butcher. His films play off a central juxtaposition: At the same time his characters are behaving like pigs, his style is one of luxuriously controlled aestheticism — tracking shots, splendid sets and costumes, and a neo-baroque musical score by his collaborator Michael Nyman. Here, as in the 1986 A Zed & Two Noughts, Nyman does variations on the beautifully stately chords of Henry Purcell’s The Cold Song.
Greenaway is saying that modern man is a barbarous fraud, that beneath his fabulous network of bourgeois manners and culinary invention, there’s nothing but fornication, violence, decay (Greenaway is big on decay), and, finally, cannibalism. This business about the ”hypocrisies” of civilization is the sort of post-Freudian banality that enjoyed quite a vogue during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Now it tends to have little appeal except to pretentious art-scene dwellers and to people who feel a mite overcivilized themselves.
Still, there’s no denying The Cook, The Thief has a style all its own — an extravagantly repellent atmosphere of suppressed violence. The section of the movie in which the Thief discovers his wife’s infidelity is undeniably suspenseful. You keep waiting with dread to see what horrible, graphic form of retribution he’ll come up with.
When the retribution arrives, it’s shocking, all right. But will those who can giggle with perverse pleasure at Greenaway’s spiteful creativity register that the punishment meted out to the ”Jewish bookseller” (it involves using books as symbolic instruments of torture) is explicitly anti-Semitic? Greenaway’s point of view is too closely allied with the Thief’s for us to view this revenge as simply one character’s dastardliness. It’s Greenaway’s dastardliness as well; he’s getting off on it. The Cook, The Thief is so full of loathing it just about gags on its own bile. C-