Peter Greenaway brings his dark and perverted sensibility to The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989). It's this sensibility, along with the thespian eye of production designers Jan Roelfs and Ben van Os and the sartorial flair of Jean-Paul Gaultier, that exalts this film to a menagerie feast for the eyes and a tour through the carnal intimacy and romance of a doomed affair. Unfortunately, it's also this sensibility that leaves such a bad taste in the end.
But let's start with the good stuff... Like a rococo bottle episode, the whole movie takes place in only a handful of spaces. Set design fluctuates between blood-red drapery, a sanitized white bathroom reminiscent of the human zoo room at the end of 2001, and storybook nooks like the pheasant larder and book depository, each possessed of an almost meta theatrical quality that makes the experience more like a Gaultier costumed opera than a film. Helen Mirren is gorgeous in this and the scene where she lies on the floor with Michael in tears is very moving; their romance feels tender and authentic.
All of this brilliance is undermined by the final act where Georgie arranges for her former lover to be cooked and plated like a crispy Cornish hen. Perhaps Greenaway thought this satire of Thatcherite conspicuous consumption wouldn't be complete without a cannibalized murder for the villain (a sort of reverse eat the rich where the rich is forced at gunpoint to eat the common man). It does follow with the theme of the endless appetite of the English moneyed classes, each act being punctuated by colorful title cards that are menus for the restaurant's new daily fare.
Part of this take begs a larger question: is it the role of the film critic to police sensibilities? Or should the critic be an objective analyzer of forms and techniques and the punchiness of dialogue. Should the critic leave the weird schizo behaviors of the director to audience discretion? Many would say it's not the place of film criticism to say "I would have ended the movie this way" or "I wouldn't have taken the character in that direction" and that the film critic must merely understand what the filmmaker meant to accomplish and then judge him or her by their own standards.
But this seems an impossible task with movies like this and Park Chan-wook's Oldboy and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible when some of the images on screen are so off-putting and demented that I think a critic has to evaluate them (if not by moral, at least aesthetic qualities) when writing about the experience of the film. So, in breaking with film critic norms (and this is a quick take and not a formal review), I would say I would have ended the film with Michael's death as Georgie cuddles up next to him with her monologue in the book depository. This to me completed the arc and left the viewer with something to ponder and feel. But I can see Greenaway's ending having its own punk satisfaction for some viewers, even if it feels trite and gross to me.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) directed by Peter Greenaway — 3.5/5 stars