Gluttonous Anniversary

By Celluloid Liberation Front

the-cook-the-thief-his-wife-and-her-lover-peter-greenaway.jpgThe Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, 1990

"We're flesh, potential carcasses. If I go to the butcher, I'm always surprised for not being there instead of the beef." – Francis Bacon

To ask ourselves when cinema first dealt with cannibalism would take us on a (too) long cinematic journey back to the origins of the 7th Art. What is instead feasible is to enquire into the dichotomy of cannibalism and social critique that boasts a well-nourished range of directors from around the globe. When utilized for social allegories, the poetic object (cannibalism) is usually represented as a metaphorical tendency of human beings to eat their enemies as the ultimate act of cultural or political assimilation. A provoking example of anthropophagical class domination can be found in Brian Yuzna's Society (1980) where the director avoids the allegory and physically enacts an orgiastic homologation where the dissidents are corporally encompassed by society.

In the filmography of Marco Ferreri, libertarian cineaste and ruthless desecrator of middle class conventions, what could not be absent is the cannibalistic metaphor. In fact the director developed a sort of 'physiology' through which analysing the human crisis, painting the (under)developed corpus of capitalism where the predilection for food has always a highly allegorical value to it (someone accused him of 'Gastric Pornography'). In Come Sono Buoni I Bianchi (How Good the Whites are, 1988) the deep soul of the Black Continent devours two 'blue angels' (charity volunteers). After centuries of cultural violations the archaic rite of cannibalism avenges the white colonialist's greed, now trying to make up with humanitarian aids. In Il Seme dell'uomo (The seed of man, 1969) instead, cannibalism is no longer seen as liberating. In western societies it is nothing but one of the many symptoms of the alienated conflicting relation between men and women, precluding to itself any resolution.

The (cinematic) Brazilian culture, since the beginning of the 20th century, never refused cannibalism. On the contrary it polemically placed it as the foundation of Brazilian cultural identity (composed by hungry Natives as well as digested Europeans). Films such as Macunaima (1969) by Pedro De Andrade, Como era gustoso o meu frances (1971) by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Triste Tropico (1974) by Arthur Omar and Tabu (1982) by Julio Bressane, are all sublime transpositions into celluloid of the 'Modern Anthropophagic Movement'(1928), launched by intellectuals such as Mario de Andrade, Alcantara Machado and Oswaldo de Andrade. They reclaimed cannibalism as the only anti-colonialist cultural practice: the native eats the Christian host imposed by the European but, digesting it, he liberates himself through the creation of a multicultural synthesis. Political correctness bans cannibalism from any 'official' discourse, ignoring or attributing it to foreign civilizations (we are doing the same now with terrorism) where such 'lower' practises are comprehensible because they are justified by a supposedly primitive context. Naturally what the so-called first world does not want to face is the ultimate bestiality pulsing at the core of its civilization that, not casually, lives off cultural rape and economic anthropophagic domination.

Greenaway’s final choice in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) is neither casual nor exclusively metaphorical. It seals the bestial discourse forwarded throughout the film exposing Spica's gluttonous (in)humanity. Cannibalism embodies the final stage of his consumerist starvation. Considering the aforementioned elements, how does Greenaway’s social symphony (invaluable is Nyman's contribution) criticize the British 80s and be(fore)yond? How does the director of The Cook dissect the sclerotic body of British society and its connate cancer(s)? What Greenaway does in his physio-sociological critique is to strip the British skeleton of the rotten meat in order to formally expose its (cultural) monstrosity.

the-cook-the-thief-his-wife-and-her-lover-peter-greenaway-2.jpgThe Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, 1990

The Cook can easily be considered as a quintessentially British feature, not in the same sense of the then popular Heritage Movies and their pathetic revisionist attempt at glorifying England's values (a sort of Falklands' war on celluloid) but rather for its inner surgery on the social gangrene, ailing the English corpus. In spite of being set in contemporary England during its terminal stage of Thatcherism the film imaginatively contextualizes an historical past where the reasons of the current disease lie, "gaining the remembrance of time past from the imaginative extension of both past and present as objective histories".

The 'New Rich' is surely echoed, if not personified, in the character of Spica, an uncultured and illiterate man who has grown rich thanks to a 'free' market where any sort of entrepreneur can 'make it', regardless the nature of the business and the actions behind it. What Spica represents is significant in order to comprehend the poetics of Greenaway’s film. He is (even extrapolated from his social class) the drunk rudeness supplying an emotional constipation typical of his country, his connate absence of grace and style has to be replaced by an assertively violent attitude symptomatic of an existential inadequacy.

Spica's relation with food is also representative of a culture unable to create culinary poetry, but constantly striving to buy some (England has the highest number of restaurants and restaurant-goers in the world) in order to avidly consume without even being positively affected by the experience. Introducing the dichotomy, British culture-(French) food, Greenaway expressly exposes the inferiority complex afflicting Britain towards France. The preciousness of French cuisine allegorically signifies the philosophical richness of French culture as opposed to the gross superficiality of the British one, pained by creative constipation and yet proudly waving the pathetic flag of anti-intellectualism. The restaurant is French (La Hollandaise), the chef – the only person Spica respects – is French, whilst Spica's fellow diners are brutishly British and spectacularly mirror Franz Hals' portrait of the Haarlem officers resting uneasy, like an historical ghost, behind the diners.

the-cook-the-thief-his-wife-and-her-lover-peter-greenaway-3.jpgThe Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, 1990

It is the aforementioned portrait that continuously reminds the audience of how deeply rooted in British history the squalid banquet depicted on screen is; in fact Spica and his mates are, anachronistically, dressed in 18th century fashion, further underlying the historical causes and roots of that bestiality. Is during that century that France, beheading the king, emancipated itself from blind obedience, paving the (long and sometimes backward) way to artistic and social freedom that Britain never undertook since it was unable to get rid of a castrating crown. Michael’s (the wife's lover) favourite book is "The French Revolution" and is also, not casually, the stuffing of his own dead body, Spica’s gang, in an exemplary act of contempt towards culture and human dignity, use the aforementioned book to outrage Michael's defenceless corpse. Michael is, as a matter of fact, marginalised because of his literary leanings. He is a prototype victim of the British proud anti-intellectual tradition that the director’s stylistic manoeuvres and aesthetic wiring eloquently undermine.

With the help of Michael Nyman and Sacha Vierny (Resnais' photographer in Last Year in Marienbad) Greenaway orchestrates a social symphony, theatrically dividing the body-restaurant into horizontal classes, denying any continuity solution. Never indulging in organoleptic aestheticism Greenaway chromatically sections the space, mirroring thus a divided universe in terms of feelings, desires, jobs and classes. The forged aesthetic is not to be considered as a mere narrative decoration but is indissolubly part of that carnal and smelly universe represented by the restaurant-society where colours, sounds, shadows, objects participate in the corporeal depiction of a social cancer. The blinding white light of the toilette provides the frame for Georgina and Michael anxiously prudish encounters, as opposed to the pornographic red light of the dining hall where consumerism has turned into culinary atrociousness, consumption in the modern sense of celebrating plenty is restored to its more primitive sense of consuming-as-devouring. The sexual delicacy consumed in the underbelly of the restaurant describes the paradoxically mocking reality of the dissidents, forced to clandestinely live hidden from the censoring eyes (CCTV cameras) of the kingdom.

the-cook-the-thief-his-wife-and-her-lover-peter-greenaway-4.jpgThe Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, 1990

Let there be no doubt – the emancipating journey is as dangerous as it is necessary: the wife and her lover escaping from the restaurant's rectum have to traverse the rotten leftovers of society, witnessing with their own senses the grubby essence of the system whose ability in hiding its monstrosity is spectacularly displayed on the swanky banquet. Contrary to Peter RichardsonEat the Rich (1987), where the unwitting diners were eating human corpses without knowing it, in The Cook... the cannibalistic act is lucidly performed before the kitchen staff in a masterful scene of musical horror where the obscenity of power is ultimately played out.

The social symphony has blown its last notes and the camera comes back where it all began, the rectal exit of the restaurant where Spica used to come and go (he enters the main door only for the last supper) the darkest organ of the dysfunctional British body where the worst atrocities are committed far from the opulent elegance of the dining hall. This is the back of society, where in the beginning Spica covers with shit and then pisses on one of his employees that will be later washed by two Black cooks, the unspoken place inhabited by straw dogs that, with its dark light, ushers the (violated) redeeming culinary temple. Let there be the British carcass...or as Oswald de Andrade would have it: "Only anthropophagy unites us. Socially. Economically. Philosophically".

CLF is a collectively multiple entity carrying out a cultural guerrilla war against the collective inertia in which the spectacular empire is caging us all. In celluloid we (don't) trust but we firmly believe in the subversive detonation of a laughter that will bury you all! Le cinema est mort, vive la bande Bonnot! Contact us on