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Saturday Night at the Movies

By David Turpin.

Since the 1990s, it has been fashionable to deride the British filmmaker Peter Greenaway on the grounds that he is a “snob”. I don’t know him, but I can say with absolute certainty that he doesn’t care. After all, he had already demolished these claims – and a lot more besides – with his 1989 masterpiece The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

In purely technical terms, The Cook strikes me as Greenaway’s most supremely sure-footed film. It’s the only one in which his mastery of form is dedicated to conveying, rather than complexifying, the narrative. As a piece of storytelling, it is pitilessly direct: it starts as it means to go on, and it concludes sharply, with all the finality of a beheading.

As the contours of the film’s plot are delineated in its title, they needn’t be rehearsed here. As for the way the fates of these characters play out, suffice to say that The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover has some roots in Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. More than a Jacobean revenge tragedy, however, the film is a modern morality play. It has been read as a neat metaphor for the Thatcher years, but it is so much more. It is a timeless attack on stupidity – a stupidity that consumes everything and understands nothing. Greenaway’s nouveau riche thief bears no relation to the gangsters of certain popular films and television programs, whose oafish aggression and crass avariciousness is celebrated as iconoclasm. He is, simply, repugnant. For any viewer with a shred of thought, there is no vicarious thrill to be leeched from his transgressions. In fact, there is a profound satisfaction to be found in the final section of The Cook, as one realizes that – from the very beginning – the measured, pitiless march of the film has been toward the annihilation of this monster.

There is no denying it: the film is furious, and fury is always ugly. However, it is also brilliant, and brilliance is always beautiful. Throughout, every element of the piece – performance, camera movement, colour, costume, and music – is suspended between these poles, held unfailingly upright by the ruthless singularity and control of Greenaway’s direction.

At times, Michael Nyman‘s scores have tended toward the saccharine, but his work for The Cook is without sentiment. It moves perpetually forward with the same inexorable logic as Greenaway’s “digestive” tracking shots. The final, dissonant third of the score’s 12-minute ‘Memorial’ movement is as riveting a piece of music as has ever been married to a moving image.

Ultimately, and perhaps surprisingly, the film is extremely moving. It is so because it makes its case not with sentiment but with intelligence. It makes no pleas, because its form, its rigour, and its beauty (not prettiness) already stand as an embodiment of the absolutely correct.

The ending of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is the most viciously succinct and perfect I know: an execution; a single, correct word; and the curtain drops.

First posted: Saturday, October 17th, 2009.

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