Hatred. Fear. Jealousy. Scorn. Anxiety.
The intellectual often feels these emotions when asked to be a participant of bourgeois society, for the shallow, commercial culture of the global order pleads that he cast away his mind which he so cherishes. It tells him to love his slavery, and take the pleasures of the flesh and the transience of laughter for comforts. In time, he finds such aversions dissatisfying and continues on in anomie. He fights the world through scientific method and literary analysis, hoping that triviality and banality will not infect him, that somehow stupidity and acquiescence will not pollute his cerebral fortress.
But soon, he finds himself forlorn. Loneliness is no longer a sanctuary, but a prison. And as society provides no support for his development, he seeks the thing that is most socially encouraged: a relationship. After observation, it discourages him at first, the lowly state to which women have been forced into. Many of them, through the industrial precision of patriarchy, have been reduced to little more than showing concern for the material comforts of the day. This depresses him. Love, he thought, was one’s last chance. It is the way to integrate into the fold, to no longer be outside.
But he shortens his chances, as many do. If (as many of his kind are), he is a thinker from the middle classes, he may come to shun the hypocrisy, the complacence, the lifelessness of the women of his station. And though the working classes, as he observes, are still imbued with the lifeforce and creativity that drives mankind, they are lacking in traditions, devoid of the elegance which he detests, but secretly admires. Looking further into society, he finds his object: the bourgeois woman. Her qualities show that the petit bourgeois of his class are nothing but imitations of their masters.
His mind, of course, loves this new woman for her well-payed-for education and sense of leisure. From the comfort of her class, the world becomes still for him. It is temporarily no longer a chaos in his thoughts. Yet, there is another wall between him: class boundaries. he could attain his object in mere enjoyment, but feelings of possession take hold of him.
However, she cannot have him, as she is, rather. Upon scrutiny, he understands that what he is facing is a whole system. She does not belong to her class by choice, but by forces, and these influences made and continually reinforce her character. What he loves was made by design. And the small emoluments that sustain him cannot alter her inclinations. To have her, as she is, she must provide what she is accustomed to, or instead risk a change. It is, in a simple term, preservation. And for this, he grows more and more unfit for the world, more willing to change it. Desire drives his dream of overthrow. But the dream of owning factories or investment banks is an inconceivable as the Christ myth to him. And his hatred for the figureheads of patriarchy couldn’t possibly lead him to mimic the very system which chokes out his existence. So he decides to make the world go upside-down. He cannot beat them, and certainly will not join them. He will, rather, make them obsolete.
It is this impetus which I feel drives The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. While my introduction heavily politicizes the film, behind Greenaway’s baroque adornments lies a direction towards the radical. The man I described, in his acumen and uncertainty, is Michael, the Lover. Though he is portrayed as a victim of a raving lunatic’s brutality, his crime is that he sought to upset the order through the sexual act.
He cannot, in this world, engage in free love and have the bourgeois woman he so desires. She is, for the restaurant owner and the higher classes he represents (think of the building’s interior opulence and Georgina’s deluxe, ever-changing wardrobe), part of an exclusive society, in so much as this social unit views her as property, that is, more specifically, reproductive property. Her main function, in the eyes of the husband, Spica, is to abide in his home, represent him and stay faithful to him, thereby preventing her from fornication, and hence, humiliation for him and the further matter of ambiguous parentage.
Michael has a firmly rooted position as a thinker by his actions. While Spica and his minions are gorging themselves, Michael is seen reading (with no coincidence) a book on the French Revolution (subversive ideas are always on loan from foreigners). He probably prefers revolution in its French incarnation and not its Russian one, as he is not quite ready for full equality. And for this breach in expectations, the husband disrupts his book reading (for the model citizen should be frivolous, not brainy), throwing the book on the floor and cursing him.
The husband, Spica, is seen through Michael’s eyes, and not Georgina’s. Western film is often more manipulative than its Eastern counterpart. The Occident is concerned with identification, while the East prefers observation. In the West, Christian concepts of good and evil influence choices in narrative. Michael is good, for he is a martyr. Jesus against Rome. The husband, the bad one, is executed for his sins. And his barbaric behavior and personification of all things evil is represented by his red and black raiment – purely diabolical.
Given the timing of the film’s release, there can be speculation that the thief, the husband, is a stand-in for the UK’s corrupt, Thatcherite dictatorship. This follows the same line as my argument and is useful, but the cultural specificities of the UK and Margaret Thatcher are not. I see the film as expressing the eternal theme of the pre-revolutionary stage: corruption.
Corruption is the by-product of stagnation, when normal, decent democracy must be perverted to keep the ruling classes happy. Life as they knew it can no longer be replenished through legal means, for there are too many barriers. It is here that we see power encroach itself further into private life by means of the state (i.e… wiretapping, deregulation, police repression, the ramping-up of the criminal codes [such as the 10-20-Life policy in the state of Florida], and stricter drug laws). Now, corruption, in the common sense, is seen as a private matter, being that of markets, business, and industry, yet it can be traced back to the state. Once the state, in its Engelian function, fails to keep class antagonism from volatile levels, and starts to support power to the detriment of the governed, then it opens the doors for the abuse of power, by power – for corruption.
The world saw a crucial moment in the 1980’s with the rise of a new Conservatism, seen in Reagan and Thatcher, here in the West, and the subsequent attack on progressive gains, most notoriously displayed during Reagan’s first few months in office, when he gave a crushing blow to the strike of the government-employed, air traffic controllers. In the U.S., the governed were also sold out by the state which protects them from power. Tax incentives given to megacorporations, which then used the new boon in capital to penetrate foreign markets, assisted in the deindustrialization of the U.S., and the mass layoffs in the labor market.
Further encroachments on liberty had to be made, abroad and at home, as Reagan and U.S. power sought to defeat their existential enemy, the USSR. Greenaway’s film was made at the horizon of this victory. For America, and its bulldog Britain, no longer would there be a Red, second world to protect the vulnerable third world. And it is at this stage, when the West could still profess itself as having a destiny, that it can be, to its citizens, admirable. Manifest Destiny (here transposed to the entire globe) was complete, and the U.S. (Britain too) had no more future to sell to its children. And with “smooth” world, and the opening-up of previously unpenetrated markets, the population could experience a new, undreamed of decadence. But with no goal in mind, the need for great diligence and obedience was no longer necessary. Social liberalism can thrive. And the world as it was, was a completed construct. The ousting of “bad guys” like Milosevic and Saddam is not an expeditionary, imperial campaign, but rather, a disciplinary action. No other nation can fall out of line in this fixed world.
Therefore, Michael’s sexual defiance, is more intolerable in this stage in history, than were he to diddle Spica’s wife once the mission had been completed (when it’s time to laissez les bon temps rouler). Such trangressions are expected, but not encouraged, once an era of enjoyment falls upon the earth (such as the world of the flapper and the petting parties of the Roaring 20’s).
The wife, while seeking a more meaningful love, is still part of these historical forces. Helen Mirren, not as personality, but as an object (she is the only woman seen in the nude, the only one that desire is focused upon), is completely necessary. She represents a dying class, one that is about to see its success (world domination). Death, also, is a theme in this film. Richard, the cook, gives a speech on how black foods represent death, and in consuming them one can conquer mortality (from keys to the quiche). And it is around so much death, from Michael’s, to Spica’s, to the hapless employees’, that we must surround ourselves with life. A restaurant, fine dining in particular, is a celebration of life and sensuality (something the English should learn more of). Eating, like sex (seen in the film expressly) remind man of his impermanence, which reinvigorates his sense of life. Only in realizing death can we start to truly enjoy life. The set designers, knowing this, draped the restaurant’s interiors in warm, yonic reds, representing sex, the flesh, and ultimately, demise. It is in this coming end (so quietly suggested in Mirren’s, or Greenaway’s, refusal to let Georgina use the makeup brush – an aging woman belonging to a soon-to-be obsolete class), that the film so lavishly gorges on all things representing life, whether destroying it or attempting to create it.