The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover: Desire, Transgression, and Cannibalism
by Ariana Lutterman
Peter Greenaway’s 1989 The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover is a heavily stylized romantic crime drama. By using food to symbolize a love affair, sin and corruption, and poetic justice, Greenaway’s film epitomizes the idea of the feast as an emblem of desire, transgression, and cannibalism.
Michael Gambon plays English gangster Albert Spica who owns a lavish French restaurant Le Hollandais where he has ostentatious meals prepared for him, his wife, and his cronies nightly—the daily menus themselves are the transitions between scenes. Georgina, played by Helen Mirren, is well bred and seemingly above the ignorance of her vindictive husband, though this does not save her from his nearly constant beatings and verbal abuse. She begins a secret and highly risky affair with Michael, a customer and bookstore owner, in the bathroom and kitchen of the restaurant, aided by the sympathetic cook and staff. When Spica finally uncovers the affair he kills Michael with vengeful poetic justice, stuffing him with his own books the way he likes his dinner. To retaliate and finally rid herself from her husband, Georgina asks the chef to cook Michael and serve him to Spica at a feast where she forces him to eat part of Michael and then shoots him in the head.
From the outset, food is heavily associated with desire and transgression. When Georgina and Michael first make eye contact, Michael eyes her as he eats his food sensually and Spica says in the background “the naughty bits and the dirty bits are so close together that it just goes to show how eating and sex are related.” Food is thus firmly linked to sex, and the affair continues into every hidden space in the restaurant, usually in the store rooms filled with food. When Georgina and Michael have sex for the first time to completion in a room filled with vegetables and breads, the camera cuts repeatedly between images of them and images of the chef chopping and dicing food on the counter. He begins by sharpening his knives as the foreplay ensues and then moves on to the first course—the salad—and continues with peppers and cucumbers, yonic and phallic imagery that parallel the sex progressing. The film uses colour as a powerful tool as well: every costume and set piece in the restaurant is red, the same costumes and set pieces in the bathroom are white, and in the kitchen they are green. The lovers themselves are generally portrayed as naked and in green, suggesting a connection to Adam and Eve. This allusion, with forbidden fruits all around them and a ‘garden’ as their setting, emphasizes the pleasure and more pure nature of the love shared between Georgina and Michael compared to that which she shares with Spica. When Spica discovers the affair and vows to kill them, the lovers are effectively forced from their paradise, this time into a truck of rotten food and meat; food now symbolizes the destruction of their fantasy. When they enter their hide-out, Michael’s bookstore, Georgina’s first comment is “What good are all these books to you? You can’t eat them. How can they make you happy?” Food has become so linked to desire in her mind that she cannot conceive of a world without the gourmand. Book knowledge is heavily associated with the intellect, so it is ironic that Spica, who considers himself superior to Michael dies while eating food, associated with carnal pleasure, he kills Michael with books, a mark of intellect.
Cannibalism may be considered the ultimate and absolute disgrace of one’s humanity, a mark of total dehumanization. It is thus utterly humiliating for Spica when Georgina forces him to eat Michael as poetic justice and a fitting end for a husband who has caused her nothing but pain—both physically and emotionally. When he first uncovers their affair, Spica yells “I’ll bloody find them and I’ll bloody kill him! And I’ll bloody eat him! I’ll kill him and I’ll eat him!” Then he does, in fact, murder Michael in a fashion indicative of how he might roast a turkey: “They’re gonna admire the style. ‘He was stuffed. And Albert liked good food.’… ‘He was stuffed with the tools of his trade. He was stuffed with books.’” Spica sees this murder not only as a way of punishing Georgina but as a way to make a statement to society that he will not be challenged. He kills the bookkeeper in a manner that befits both of their chosen trades but ensures that his trade appears worthier. Throughout the film Spica does not hesitate to humiliate and torture anyone—even his customers, regardless of how little they have done to him. It is clear that Georgina has learned something about style in murder from her husband, as the murder that she concocts for him is just as symbolic and humiliating. As she confronts him she orders “You vowed you would kill him, and you did. And you vowed you would eat him. Now eat him.” At first Spica refuses, believing cannibalism a mark of shame and dehumanization too cruel for her to enforce. But as she points his gun to his head and says “Try the cock, Albert. It’s a delicacy, and you know where it’s been,” a quote encapsulating desire, transgression, and cannibalism together, he acknowledges her sincerity (seen in the image above). Gagging, he eats one bite before she shoots him with a last remark—“Cannibal.” Food has always served as his mark of superiority, but now has become his last shame.
Through the various uses of food and the feast in a love affair, a corrupt character, and poetic retribution, Greenaway’s film critiques the entirety of society. Spica serves as an archetype of a dictator whose transgression must ultimately be punished, Georgina symbolizes both the pure and sinful sides of desire, and cannibalism is ultimately a tool that depicts the inevitable fall that will result from a life of superficiality. In its stylized version of society, the film critiques desire, transgression, and cannibalism not only as they are applied to these specific characters but as they apply to human nature as a whole. Food may be a universal commodity, but the infinite variations of it by class, appetite, and culture make it an item that can reveal nuances in any character. Moreover, food is inextricably linked in many minds with the intellect—the pleasure of the gourmand and connoisseur, the heart—the feelings of superiority and splendor gained from eating what is considered ‘high-class’ food, and the carnal pleasures—gluttony and sin. Thus, food is truly a vehicle not only for characterization, but for vice of all kinds, and a way to reveal weaknesses and follies of all kinds.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Dir. Peter Greenaway. By Peter Greenaway. Perf. Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren. Miramax, 1990.
Tobias, Scott. “The New Cult Canon The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover.” AV Club Live. A.V. Club, 5 Jan. 2012. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.