Sadism à la carte

Philip French on the restaurant at the end of civilisation

Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is not without precedent. In Marco Ferreri's La Grande Bouffe, a party of middle-aged men indulge in a suicidal orgy of food and sex. In Pasolini's Salo, the grotesque excesses of De Sade's 120 days of Sodom (coprophagia almost the least of them) are ritually enacted in the dying days of facist Italy. But there has never been anything like it before in mainstream Anglo-American cinema. In the opening sequence the villain makes his victim eat excrement; in the closing scene he himself is forced at gunpoint to dine on human flesh.

This dazzling movie, presenting barbarous and disgusting material in elegantly composed, immaculately-lit images, is made in widescreen, the right shape to frame a laid-out corpse or a row of people dining in a parody of The Last Supper. The time is always night, the place a smart restaurant managed by the fastidious cook Richard (Richard Bohringer), owned by the vile gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon in his first major screen role), and frequented by Spica, his abused wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), his louche lieutenants, and the restaurant's rich, quiescent gourmets. The camera glides back and forth (rarely cutting) between four areas - a hellish decadent city where ravenous dogs prowl; a grim, steamy kitchen that might have been etched by Gustave Doré; a red-plush fin-de-siècle dining room dominated by a gigantic Frans Hals painting of Dutch burghers banqueting; and a white, shadowless hi-tech lavatory. This is an image of a society committed to private affluence and public squalor.

Spica is an evil, foul-mouthed, sadistic bully with social pretensions - an amalgam of King Ubu, Mussolini, Al Capone, a wilful baby and a cruel Renaissance prince. His thoughts are all of sex, eating and defacation, and he sees himself as an artist, persuasively turning life into metaphor, brutally transforming metaphors back into life. He strikes people with spoons, impales them with forks, threatens to eat his enemies. But a long-suffering wife and a contemptuous cook tolerate him; the restaurant's obsequious guests accept his abuse. They like his foodand are cowed by his power. But a quiet, bookish diner, Michael (Alan Howard), becomes Georgina's secret lover and they pursue their affair night after night beneath Spica's nose in the lavatory and various parts of the kitchen. When they are discovered, te cook helps them escape, metaphorically excreting them from the restaurant in a van of waste matter.

This chilling cross between a nightmare fairy-tale and a Jacobean revenge tragedy is further confirmation of Greenaway's standing as one of the most assured and individual talents at work in world cinema. His customary wit, his usual concern with death and decay, games-playing, systems and symmetry, are all here. But this is the nearest he has yet come to making a positive political statement and it is a subtler, more complex one than those found in La Grande Bouffe or Salo. He has given his distinguished cast intriguing roles and they have served him well.

Philip French

The Observer, 14.10.89.

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