The Horrors of Neoliberalism

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

When The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover first hit the screen in 1989, it inspired the sort of intense reactions normally restricted to horror films.

Patriarchy and gluttony. Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon.

Although superficially resembling the sumptuous art-house fare to which cinephiles of the haute bourgeoisie have long flocked, Peter Greenaway’s 1989 picture turns its pleasures into pain, demonstrating that the interlocking horrors of patriarchy and capitalism cannot be contained by genre.

The plot turns on the four people mentioned in the title. Richard (Richard Bohringer) is a brilliant chef whose superb creations keep his restaurant full in spite of the fact that its best table is presided over by Albert (Michael Gambon), the thief, and his gang, who take perverse delight in doing everything possible to get banned from the establishment. That’s because Albert owns it and has final say over everything, effectively reducing Michael to a mere cook.

Georgina (Helen Mirren) is his wife. Although she seems to have the same working-class origins as Michael, his wealth has made it possible for her to transcend them culturally. As Richard notes, when Albert inquires why she is being given special dishes to try instead of him, she has an excellent palate, while he clearly does not.

Her lover Michael (Alan Howard), is a regular patron of the restaurant, dining alone with a pile of old books he has piled on his table. One evening she notices him absent-mindedly dropping the food from his fork, distracted by what he is reading, and is charmed. He looks up, their eyes meet, and it’s lust at first sight.

Albert – whose last name is Spica, as in “despicable” – is a gangster in the mould of postwar British pictures like The Long Good Friday, incandescent with rage at the fact that his money can’t buy respectability. Instead of trying to acquire it with education, as Georgina does, he lures the privileged into a trap.

Despite his boorish behaviour and the very real threat that it might turn into something worse, they can’t resist Richard’s food. Their class background helps them appreciate the finer things in life and pay for them. But it also blinds them to the network of social relations that make that luxury possible. By continuing to frequent the restaurant, they are effectively brought down to Albert’s level.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover was a sensation for two reasons.

First, it contains so much explicit content that the distributor had to let it play in the States without a rating so as to avoid the dreaded X normally reserved for pornography.

Second, it came out after a decade of political retrenchment in both the UK and the US, personified by the towering figures of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

It didn’t hurt that the film manages to push buttons while also being astoundingly beautiful.

Each location has a particular colour scheme, underscored by the voluptuous reds of the dining room. While the kitchen scenes feature moody, high-contrast lighting, the dining room is extremely bright.

Close-ups of the food in the restaurant, whether in the larder, being prepared, or as served to patrons, emphasize the diversity and quality of the ingredients.

And Michael Nyman’s superb score, inspired by the Baroque compositions of Henry Purcell, turns up the emotional intensity.

Almost every scene is pregnant with dread. But that sense of awful anticipation makes the fleeting moments of happiness all the more powerful.

Not only the characters we come to care about, but the very possibility of experiencing refined pleasures is at risk.

Back in 1989, the gravest threats to those pleasures seemed to come from reactionary quarters, just as they do today.

The small-minded conservatism that Thatcher and Reagan cultivated and exploited advocated a return to traditional values. And their leadership coincided with a massive backlash against the liberties made possible by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and celebrated by the counterculture.

It’s important to remember that the “foodie” scene that eventually took privileged areas of the UK and US by storm first took root in those neighborhoods where the counterculture had a significant impact, such as university towns like Oxford, Cambridge, Ann Arbor, and Berkeley, where Alice Waters self-consciously tried to translate her experience of the student movement into a new approach towards cooking.

Within that context, art that deliberately pushed buttons, especially of a sexual or violent nature, was regarded by the self-consciously cosmopolitan “liberal elites” as a political gesture, even when it didn’t reference the issues of the day.

That’s why David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet was championed by people who couldn’t stand to watch it, despite its superficial celebration of small-town life, and why that same demographic tended to regard Greenaway’s even more outré picture as a necessary provocation.

It’s self-evident that both films wish to show us the depravity concealed by respectability. But perceiving that condition in specifically political terms requires some work. How could privileged liberal audiences conclude they weren’t being asked to stare in the mirror?

The simplest answer is that they were willing to support films like this, even if they found their extremity disturbing. They tolerated what conservatives repressed.

But this is where things get complicated.

In The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover, the restaurant’s patrons put up with the outrageous behaviour of Albert and his men. While they might not have a choice once they have decided to dine there, since he makes the rules, they could have eaten elsewhere.

In short, they are willing to tolerate what seems outwardly intolerable because it’s the price they have to pay to get what they want. Their desire to experience the finer things in life takes precedence over their fear of powerful people who fail to appreciate them.

A painter by training, Greenaway reinforces this point by transforming the screen into a genre painting. A series of slow pans take us from the restaurant’s expansive kitchen into its lavishly appointed dining room and back, showing us the kind of scenes that seventeenth-century Dutch artists celebrated.

To help us perceive the connection, the restaurant is named Le Hollandais. To reinforce it, we regularly see lavish displays of food of the sort featured in some genre paintings and the still lifes that became popular alongside them.

And to make absolutely sure that we don’t miss it, a giant reproduction of a Baroque painting in the manner of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch hangs on the back wall of the dining room. Albert and his men even dress in a manner that mimics the respectable burghers it depicts.

Anybody who knows something about the origins of capitalism should be able to figure out that Greenaway wants us to consider the relationship between the Dutch Golden Age and the neoliberalism of his day.

After decades in which the postwar welfare state tempered the harsh truths of capitalism, the 1980s witnessed a return to laissez-faire, libertarian principles and a concerted onslaught on anything that might resist their full implementation in the United Kingdom and the United States.

But what conclusions does The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover want us to reach about this relationship?

It would have been entirely plausible for the film’s liberal champions to focus on the discrepancies between the social world depicted in the painting and the one we witness in the restaurant. From this perspective, Albert’s gang would represent a “black mass” version of the well-fed respectability of those Dutch burghers.

And that’s how many people interpreted the film in 1989. Like Donald Trump, who exemplified the crassness of the nouveau riche in the US of that era, Albert is someone who wants to spend his money on expensive things, but resents the fact that he is incapable of truly enjoying them.

From the perspective of liberals who found the naked celebration of wealth repulsive, reducing The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover to a simple political allegory made sense.

The problem with this response to the film is that, in contrast with the stereotypical political allegories of the seventeenth century, Greenaway provides more than one key to unlock its meaning.

His invocation of Dutch genre paintings looms large here. From the food to the table settings to the patrons’ attire, every detail in Le Hollandais testifies to a surplus of luxury for those who can afford it.

But whereas those genre paintings usually consign the harsher realities of existence to the margins, if not ignoring them completely, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover places them front and centre.

Instead of having to imagine the decay that will inevitably destroy a beautiful spread, we repeatedly witness its destruction.

The well-stocked larders we see reflected in Dutch genre painting and still lifes were possible because a small group of individuals were making a lot of money at the expense of others.

Most egregiously, the Dutch East India Company was permitted to ravage faraway lands with impunity, enslaving and exploiting non-white peoples to generate the profits that made a capitalist economic model feasible.

Within Holland itself, this largesse rapidly opened up a class divide between those who were able to make it rich and those whose lot it became to serve them.

In other words, the Dutch burghers in the painting were a lot like Georgina, having become respectable through disrespectful means.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about watching The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover today, now that both Greenaway’s films and his statements about them are easier to access, is the suspicion that his perspective on the story runs counter to that of the art-house cinephiles it was intended to shock.

In an interview Greenaway gave to Xan Brooks of The Guardian in 2012, the director makes it clear that he wasn’t fond of the way mainstream cinema tells stories.

Although many of the people who managed to make it through The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover during its original theatrical release were brought to tears by the end — in part because of the skill with which Nyman’s score accentuates key moments in the story — Greenaway seems frustrated by that type of response.

Distancing himself from “Hollywood movies that demand intense emotional rapport,” he advocates for a more analytical approach. “We’re here and we’re talking, not because of emotional rapport but because of an intellectual ability to discuss the issues.”

This manner of prioritizing thinking over feeling aligns with playwright Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre, which rejected the tenets of Aristotelian drama.

Instead of crafting a story arc that would provide audiences with the emotional orgasm of catharsis, Brecht aspired to write a series of semi-autonomous scenes that were of equivalent importance.

For his part, Greenaway never wanted to be a dramatist.

Whereas words take precedence on stage, he believes that they prevent cinema from achieving its full potential as a unique artistic medium: “Whether you’re Godard or Almodovar or Scorsese, it’s text, text, text. Everything begins with the text and this is a source of great anguish to me. So please let cinema get on with doing what it does best: expressing ideas visually.”

Many of Greenaway’s films testify to his troubles with text.

In The Pillow Book, notoriously, he conveys the desire for text to be more immediate and visceral by showing how words are inscribed on human flesh. And even though Prospero’s Books adapts William Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, the fact that so many actors are naked throughout the film creates a constant distraction, undercutting the reverence with which the printed text is typically handled.

For the literati who were drawn to The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, the fact that Albert mocks both his wife and her lover Michael for reading books must have seemed like an indictment of the hostility towards intellectuals exhibited by reactionary Tory and GOP politicians. And the manner of Michael’s death is all the more poignant because his beloved library plays a crucial role.

However, when we consider Albert’s words in relation to Greenaway’s statements about cinema, the implications of this conflict become less clear.

I’ve been reading stuff to make your hair curl, out there in the toilet,” Albert tells Michael during their initial confrontation.

After picking up the seemingly antiquated volume that Michael has been reading, he makes the kind of crassly populist arguments favoured by conservatives who resent Oxbridge and its American correlates.

“That’s the sort of stuff people read, not this sort of thing.  Don’t you feel out of touch? Does this stuff make money? You know, I bet you’re the only man who’s read this book. But I bet every man in this restaurant has had a read of that stuff out there. It makes you think, doesn’t it?”

Even though these insinuating questions come from the mouth of one of the most terrifying characters ever to appear on a movie screen, they cannot be easily dismissed.

Michael is obviously well-off. How else could he afford to dine at such an expensive restaurant night after night? Unlike Georgina, however, he does not seem to be a social climber.

At first, the two lovers communicate with their bodies alone, stealing off to the restroom and kitchen while Albert presides over his table in the dining room. When they finally converse, Michael tells Georgina about seeing a film in which the main character doesn’t speak for a long time. He tells her that he loved the sense of possibility that silence conjured but that he became bored once the character was defined by words.

On one level, this statement echoes Greenaway’s hostility towards the text. If he has to tell a story, he would rather not have it circumscribed by words.

On another level, though, Michael’s preference for a time when character wasn’t specified is a commentary on his own hypocrisy, not to mention that of the well-heeled cinephiles who celebrated The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

No matter how sympathetic Michael’s character seems on the surface, he still represents the kind of self-delusion that drives critics of liberal elites mad. Albert is undoubtedly right that Michael’s wealth didn’t come from reading old books. But its origin has been repressed.

This erasure parallels one we can detect over and over in the seventeenth-century paintings Greenaway references. Over and over again, they feature food and goods sourced from the faraway lands being exploited by European imperialism. In capturing this exotic bounty, artists unwittingly testified to the brutalities that made it possible.

When Albert discovers that Georgina and Michael are having an affair, he sends his men to kill him. The scene of the crime is gruesome. We see Michael’s mouth stuffed with pages from a book on the French Revolution.

It makes sense for anyone who loves the life of the mind, who regards reading as a noble pursuit, to be horrified at the specificity of Albert’s cruelty. But we have to entertain the distressing prospect that Greenaway wants us to see this gesture as more than a way of mocking the left.

The most provocative thing about The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is not its scenes of sex or violence but the fact that they implicate the audience in a critique of capitalism that is too comprehensive to be reduced to its right-wing proponents.

If we identify with Michael or Georgina, it is partially because we are trying so hard not to identify with Albert.

But so long as we depend on the labour of others to fulfill our dreams, as Richard clearly did when he let Albert fund his restaurant, we will have to contend with the Albert inside us.

Because no matter how disquieting it may be to see ourselves reflected in the violence of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover, as well as its beauty, that is the only way to comprehend the film’s full power.

Screenshot courtesy of Miramax. All rights reserved.