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Peter Greenaway's "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover"
August 21, 2011 7:34 PM   Subscribe

Though it is by far Peter Greenaway’s most well known film and, for all of the visceral and intellectual challenges it proposes, probably his most approachable, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover remains a difficult film to apprehend. (the beginning and the end, both NSFW)
posted by Trurl (37 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
That was my introduction to Greenaway. It ran at the art theater in the area I grew up in for a week, and I saw it 4 out of 7 nights that it ran there. It was utterly unlike anything I'd ever seen before, and I was hooked, despite being scandalized to my core. (I'm much less easily shocked these days.)

I've seen a good number of his works since then. I'd say that Drowning By Numbers is more easily approachable, because it is so bald-faced about its gimmick. But there's much to love in any of his movies, even if they aren't immediately comprehensible. Once you've given yourself over to Greenaway's sense of what cinema is (that is, an image which evolves and which has distinct artistic elements [not necessarily having anything to do with plot]), it's easy to get lost in his movies regardless of what they actually are saying or if you have any clue at all what they're about.

Greenaway films are like going to a museum. You don't always understand the imagery you're confronted with, or even know where it originated or why it's interesting to look at, but with an open mind and a willing eye it will all be interesting. Ultimately you leave tired but fulfilled, and if you have some sense of narrative when it's over, you're lucky and happy.
posted by hippybear at 7:43 PM on August 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


You don't always understand the imagery you're confronted with, or even know where it originated or why it's interesting to look at, but with an open mind and a willing eye it will all be interesting. Ultimately you leave tired but fulfilled, and if you have some sense of narrative when it's over, you're lucky and happy.

Even if you get nothing else out of it that movie has individual frames that are so gorgeously composed they should hang on museum walls.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 7:47 PM on August 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


You'll never see Dumbledore the same way afterwards, that's for sure.
posted by stinkycheese at 7:58 PM on August 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


This was my introduction to Greenaway, too, hippybear. I'd never seen anything like it either. What left the strongest impression on me was the transition to the bathroom scenes -- the sudden shifts in architecture/decor, the red walls (if I remember correctly), the surprisingly intimate but menacing musical score, the way all of this contrasted so starkly with the bombastic dining room scenes. I can still remember the score, the minimalist, delicate, cautious but seductive saxophone (not a rock-n-roll or jazz saxophone, but one played in a more classical/chamber music fashion). And the "eat your words" scene and the rotten meatlocker scene shocked me in way I didn't know I could be shocked.

I'm also a huge fan of his less-shocking and unabashedly baroque Prospero's Books. The marriage between music, architecture, sets, etc., is, IMO, also stunning in this film. The banquet scene with the 20-minute Michael Nyman mini-operetta featuring Ute Lemper just blew me away.

For what it's worth, I rented the The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover from blockbuster when I was a teenager. I believe it was more or less in the same period of my life that I also rented Blue Velvet from the same blockbuster. Those two movies were unforgettable lessons that taught me film is not necessarily a benign medium.
posted by treepour at 8:05 PM on August 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


After Gambon's Corner and Layer Cake and it's a miracle you could see him as Dumbledore at all.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 8:06 PM on August 21, 2011


I remember half of the people who entered the theater with me had left before the film ended, many in horror after a scene involving a young boy. It is a strong movie.
posted by caddis at 8:08 PM on August 21, 2011


I always end up re-watching this alone. It's not what most people want to accept in their reality but I believe art done well can be both repulsive and magnetic, even charming in it's (eventual)brutality. PG has a knack and the chutzpah to poke into some seriously tender spots.

I've never read any opinions or insight into it before, but it's all exactly why I love the movie so much, in words. With a shout out to the superb pacing.
posted by a_green_man at 8:12 PM on August 21, 2011


I saw this at Wormwood's in Halifax (God I miss them). I remember they made an announcement before the film that if anybody walked out in the first 20 minutes, they would refund their money, which was not normally their policy. I presume they did that because so many patrons did walk out and it wasn't worth the hassle of arguing about it.
posted by joannemerriam at 8:24 PM on August 21, 2011


I love this movie but I've only seen it once. It was unbearable and beautiful and shocking. After it was over I sat on the floor for a long time, just processing what I'd experienced. I do not think I could stand to watch it again - it is a very difficult emotional experience for me, particularly the fate of the Lover.
posted by winna at 8:35 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I used to watch this whenever it was on SBS. Haven't seen it for years. Great movie, though.
posted by tumid dahlia at 8:37 PM on August 21, 2011


Also noteworthy: Jean-Paul Gaultier's terrific costume design.
posted by Trurl at 8:39 PM on August 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


As a tangent, I knew that I loved GTA:3 when I stumbled across a few unmarked easter-egg missions in it that you only get by answering a random ringing payphone that you can walk past. There's a dude on the other end of the line who wants you to take hits out on certain people. The mission names:
THE COOK
THE THIEF
THE WIFE
HER LOVER

You've got to wonder how mush work went into coding those missions for the 1% who was going to get the reference.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:39 PM on August 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


Oh, wow.

One lonely night in high school I turned on Showcase (for those of you who didn't grow up in Canada in the early 00s, it was one of those precious channels that held the promise of occasional boobies) to witness the last few minutes of this film. I never knew what movie it was until this very post. In fact I've always sort of fancied that I fell asleep on the couch and dreamed it, my superego punishing me for seeking out softcore cable porn.

Thanks for refueling my teenage nightmares, Trurl.
posted by saturday_morning at 8:59 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


In addition to Drowning by Numbers, also check out his take on the Tempest (Prospero's Books), and Zoo (A Zed and two Naughts).
posted by lkc at 9:12 PM on August 21, 2011


Hah, I was just prowling for Prospero's Books on Netflix tonight - not even available on DVD, much less streaming! That was the first of Greenaways' films I saw, some 15 years ago or so I think. Stumbled across it late at night on HBO or something right as it started, wondering what it was going to be.... two hours or so later, just washed out and amazed at what I had witnessed.

TCTTHWHL I saw much more recently, within the last year or two... visually striking as well, and a very impressive work, but I found it much less compelling to rewatch. The draining experience of those banquet scenes just wore on me. I realize that the adversarial feeling I got, that the movie was literally pitting me against Albert and his exhaustingly abusive behaviour, was deliberate (and excellently done), but after having defeated him once via pure endurance I don't think I can do it again. Not anytime soon, at least. Still, an amazing work overall.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:49 PM on August 21, 2011


After Gambon's Corner and Layer Cake and it's a miracle you could see him as Dumbledore at all.

I liked his sinister turn as a cigarette executive in The Insider, proving there are no small parts, etc.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:02 PM on August 21, 2011


This was my introduction to Greenway and Nyman. I was just stunned by it, it was so beautiful and horrifying. Next was Prospero's Books which was even more dazzling and mercifully less disturbing. I really missed Nyman's touch when Pillow Book came out, though. I've never watched TCTTHWHL all the way through a second time; I guess I just don't have the stomach for it.

BTW, most Nyman fans probably already know this, but I only recently learned that he borrowed the main theme for Memorial from Henry Purcell's Cold Genius Song.
posted by homunculus at 10:26 PM on August 21, 2011


I saw this movie at a science fiction convention, back when they showed movies all through the weekend. I'm not sure what the order I saw them in was, but 15 year old me sat through TCTTHW&HL, Serpent and the Rainbow, Jacob's Ladder and Naked Lunch, one right after another. It was a pretty fantastic eight hours or so.

One of the things that bugged me about it was the NC-17 (wasn't this the first one?) it got, ostensibly because of sex and canibalism. However, at roughly the same time, everyone was gushing about Fried Green Tomatoes, which ends with pretty bluntly implied canibalism. Double standards, and such.

Anyway, I loved this film, but as beautiful as it was, to me, The Pillow Book was the film of his that stunned me visually.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:58 AM on August 22, 2011


This movie taught me there is a terrible price to be paid for art. Saw this my freshman year of college with a girl who I had known since kindergarten. We had been friendly enough growing up but it wasn't until we ran into each other while home on break that we realized there had been a growing inevitable mutual attraction. We fell to talking about this movie one night and we decided two things-- we both REALLY liked each other and we both REALLY wanted to see this movie. Plans were made, friends were notified of our new status as a couple (which was greeted by healthy round of "about goddamned time"s) and it seemed like our lives were about to enter that sort of Golden Age that is only possible to believe in when you're still young and naive.

So date night arrives and off we go to see The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Two hours later we walk out of the theater, both of us silent, trying to process everything we had just seen. The car ride home consisted of each of us struggling to articulate what we were feeling at that moment, without either of us being able to form a fully articulated sentence. When I dropped her off at her house, she looked at me and said "There are no words, are there?" We didn't speak to each other for almost 6 years after that night.

While I still sometimes play " What If" in my head and wonder how things would have turned out if we decided to see something else, I don't regret how that night turned out for us, because otherwise I would have never seen The Cook, The Thief. His Wife and Her Lover, and that's something I would regret. That movie taught me to love Cinema.

TLu;DR: Worst. Date Movie. EVER.
posted by KingEdRa at 2:29 AM on August 22, 2011 [10 favorites]


TLu;DR: Worst. Date Movie. EVER.

I think that's Happiness (with Audition a close runner up).
posted by benzenedream at 2:38 AM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


One of the best films ever made. Greenaway's A Walk Through H. The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist.

I've tried to persuade numerous people that this is the best film ever made. Most recently, I tried to persuade Tulse Luper that this was a great film. He responded that other films were better. I countered by saying that Tulse Luper was a fictional ornithologist. He retorted by saying that my map was not my territory, and therefore my assessment did not conform to ordinary coordinates. I was one hundred and sixty miles from Estergaard.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:58 AM on August 22, 2011


Then... A Flock of Birds.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:20 AM on August 22, 2011


Cook/thief/wife/lover may be a bad date movie, but in terms of films that brutalize the viewer, it's still tamer than The Baby of Macon. That's just pure misanthropy all the way down.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 4:45 AM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hah, I was just prowling for Prospero's Books on Netflix tonight - not even available on DVD, much less streaming!

Yea, sadly many of his films aren't available on disk. Not sure why but it's annoying. Drowning By Numbers isn't available either.
posted by octothorpe at 4:45 AM on August 22, 2011


TLu;DR: Worst. Date Movie. EVER.

See also: Spanking the Monkey:

"[this debut] courted controversy by following the mother-son relationship into uncomfortably frank and off-limits territory."

posted by zippy at 4:47 AM on August 22, 2011


TLu;DR: Worst. Date Movie. EVER.

My wife and I bonded via email before we met over our love of Greenaway's movies and ended up going on our second or third date to see 8-1/2 Woman.
posted by octothorpe at 4:53 AM on August 22, 2011


TLu;DR: Worst. Date Movie. EVER.

Yep. Took the wife on her birthday, she still mentions that.
posted by Mcable at 5:05 AM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I saw The Cook, The Thief when it came out in 1989, and I don't remember anyone walking out of the cinema, though there was some incredulous laughter at the final scene ('try the cock, Albert, it's a delicacy').

Greenaway's films are at their best when they engage with landscape: the country house and garden in The Draughtsman's Contract, the Amsterdam Zoo in Zed and Two Noughts, the East Anglian coastline in Drowning by Numbers (I was delighted to discover that this last film was released in France as Triple Assassinat dans le Suffolk). To me, Prospero's Books and The Cook, The Thief mark the point where it all started to go wrong, as Greenaway moved his films indoors and started to pursue his own interior visions. Watching the films as they came out (I was an obsessive Greenaway fan in those days) it felt like a retreat from reality, as though Greenaway had given up any attempt to engage with the outside world and started to treat his actors like puppets in an exquisitely furnished puppet show.
posted by verstegan at 5:12 AM on August 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


I saw this movie in college. There's a scene where someone (a child?) is forced to eat buttons, and a guy seated near me was laughing at it all through the scene. Like it was supposed to be Pythonesque dark comedy or something. Really gave me the creeps.
posted by gubo at 5:39 AM on August 22, 2011


There's a scene where someone (a child?) is forced to eat buttons, and a guy seated near me was laughing at it all through the scene.

Sometimes, when I'm watching a film, and I realize that the filmmaker went to great lengths to write, shoot, and edit a scene so mind-bogglingly fucked up that I'm forced to sit there wondering what on earth is meant to be conveyed by these particular images and sounds, I find myself laughing. I laughed at weird times in CTWL, too, but it wasn't because I found the film to be a laugher (though there is definitely humor in the film - every time the overweight, topless chef with the ponytail walked by or stood over a saucepot, I smiled).
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 5:45 AM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm sad Greenaway didn't stay more mainstream, Like David Lynch, he's gone off in his own private fantasy land of nearly unwatchable movies. Has anyone looked at his Tulse Luper Suitcases project? It sounds impenetrable, and I say this as someone who actively enjoyed the film of The Falls and bought the book. In 2007 he made a movie about Rembrandt ("Nightwatching") that has decent reviews, but honestly I never heard of it at release.
posted by Nelson at 7:41 AM on August 22, 2011


I saw this in 1989, and didn't get it. Looking back later, it strikes me as a cinematic version of the Sokal Affair. I haven't ever felt the urge to revisit it - so I guess my opinion is unlikely to change.
posted by bashos_frog at 8:34 AM on August 22, 2011


My boyfriend in college introduced me to Greenway. He was so into Greenway, that after seeing the beautiful yet challenging Prospero's books, he tried to convince me to sneak back into it and seeing it again.

But yet he was horribly disturbed by Polanski's Bitter Moon and kept asking if we could leave. I asked him like twenty years later what was up with that and he said it was because he hated Hugh Grant. I still don't get it. You can watch a guy forced to eat dog poop but not Hugh Grant?
posted by angrycat at 8:35 AM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


You know, I love and appreciate art. Art for art's sake. Film is no exception, and there are of course, varying degrees of art, whatever that is, in every film.

That being said, I saw this movie. I didn't dislike it. As I recall, it was beautifully shot. But that's about all I remember of it. It just didn't make an impression on me. I do recall being utterly unsurprised and unshocked by it, and I remember the cooked guy's penis sticking up like a bent finger, his whole body covered in glaze.

The thing is - as (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates pointed out, above - that when a director goes to great lengths to show something, I might wonder what it is I am supposed to be seeing, thinking, or feeling. And if I am wondering that, then the director is failing - because I shouldn't be wondering what I am supposed to be seeing, thinking, or feeling, I should be engaged in seeing, thinking, or feeling. Of course, if the director's intent is to confuse, that's different. But there is clearly a line between unintentional confusion and intentional confusion.

Lynch's Eraserhead is a great example of abandoning a coherent narrative in favor of making an impression. I wasn't confused during Eraserhead because I knew it wasn't making sense. I was able to "enjoy" it for what it was.

If you make a film, or a play, or a sculpture, or a piece of music, it should say something. It can be confusing and obtuse and hard to decipher, ugly or pretty, smooth or rough, whatever - but the one thing it should always be is engaging. I don't think The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover did that for me. I don't know. I think I would remember it better if I had.
posted by Xoebe at 10:40 AM on August 22, 2011


You can watch a guy forced to eat dog poop but not Hugh Grant?

I agree with your boyfriend and if it's "Four Weddings and a Funeral", I'd rather eat the dog poop myself than watch that again.
posted by octothorpe at 11:42 AM on August 22, 2011


To this day, if I see someone reading at a table I think of this film. In retrospect, it was probably one of the first mature films I'd seen and the violence of it still surprises me.

I saw it with someone else. If I recall correctly, someone in the audience said it was funnier than the Simpsons afterward.
posted by dragonplayer at 9:28 PM on August 22, 2011


But yet he was horribly disturbed by Polanski's Bitter Moon

I may be an outlier, but I found both Bitter Moon and CTWL to be hilarious. The scene in Bitter Moon with Polanski's wife pouring milk on herself cracked me up, it was so badly staged and non-erotic. CTWL is great for imagery and costumes, but was so over-the-top that I was never engaged with the characters. The memory of the operatic dishboy makes me smile everytime I do the dishes.
posted by benzenedream at 12:48 PM on August 23, 2011


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