Not a Love Story
Although in the 1960s, he trained as a painter, British filmmaker Peter Greenaway ended up shifting his aesthetic lens from canvas to screen. He made his first feature, The Falls, a mock documentary in ninety-two parts, in 1980. Greenaway went on to direct such films as The Draughtsman’s Contract, A Zed and Two Noughts, and Drowning by Numbers. In 1989, he made his most well-known, most profitable, and most controversial movie: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.
At fifteen, I watched this film, with my high-school boyfriend, in his parents’ den. I would imagine that we were eating popcorn. We did a lot of snacking. I can’t remember whether his parents were home. They kept a rumpled paper sack of pornographic videotapes tucked behind the sofa, an L-shaped sectional. Said sectional was velvety and blue. Although my boyfriend and I must have watched these illicit videos, at some point, I cannot recall the specifics of his parents’ porn. I can recall a pair of novelty underpants, owned by his father, the front panel of which represented the face of an elephant. A gray mesh holster protruded from said face, such that when the wearer’s penis was engorged with blood, said penis would fill said holster, acting as the ersatz elephant’s trunk. As though the human penis were prehensile.
But I digress.
That Peter Greenaway trained as a painter is evident in all his films. His attention to visual composition, to color, to framing, to silhouette, to style, can feel magnificently brutal. Tyrannical even. Greenaway is also quite concerned with artists and artistic pursuits, in terms of his films’ content. His narratives are, directly or abstractly, about art, artists, the making of art, what it’s like to live a life constrained and choked by art. Greenaway is rather obsessed with Rembrandt van Rijn. I recommend his 2007 film Nightwatching, which stars the popular British actor Martin Freeman, as Rembrandt van Rijn.
At eighteen, I took a class called Art Humanities, a survey of western visual art, a part of Columbia University’s required Core Curriculum. I was most impacted by the work of three fifteenth- to seventeenth-century Flemish and Dutch painters: Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Rembrandt van Rijn. I also enjoyed the Baroque sculptures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The class met on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, at 9:00 a.m., in a building with Ionic columns, called Schermerhorn, and it was there that I met the first of my two college boyfriends. Unlike my high-school boyfriend, who played role-playing games and wore tall, fringed, moccasin-type boots, who sported a kilt to our senior proms, this boyfriend wore oxblood Doc Martens and a bomber jacket. He majored in Neurobiology, and he ran a profitable business, while still in high school, taking other people’s SAT exams. He also sang in a Ska band.
Another striking feature of Peter Greenaway’s films is their scores. Throughout the 1980s, Greenaway collaborated with fellow Brit Michael Nyman, a minimalist composer, librettist, musicologist, and pianist. Nyman scored Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano. Greenaway’s visuals and Nyman’s audio work together so harmoniously that I really cannot imagine one without the other. I am unaware of another pairing of director and composer that is so synergistic, with the possible exception of David Lean and Maurice Jarre, who together, in the 1960s, made such audiovisual feasts as Lawrence of Arabia, Ryan’s Daughter, and Doctor Zhivago.
I’m a terribly unreliable narrator. Also, I’m a writer of fictions and a rabid cinephile. When I was a girl, I viewed an array of classic movies – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Key Largo, The Petrified Forest, The Night of the Hunter, Love in the Afternoon, The Little Foxes – as well as every Hitchcock film, with my father, who graduated high school at fifteen. He was a painter, a pianist, a composer, a magician, an electronics engineer, a puppeteer, and an unrepentant drunk. His collection of marionettes terrified me. Especially in the dark. A matador. A king. A queen. A devil. A chef. A gangster. An elephant. Sometimes, he put on puppet shows for my sister and me. Sometimes, he passed out in the middle of the living room floor. But he never showed me westerns. He never showed me Italian horror films. That was up to another boyfriend. This one wore motorcycle boots, guayaberas, funky sneakers, tight jeans. He was a proto-hipster. Record-nerd, disc-jockey, vintage-clothing-store-owner. I left another boyfriend for him. The other boyfriend was a bank teller. He wore button-ups, slacks, ties. The monkey suit, he called it. One Wednesday, while the bank teller was at work, sporting the monkey suit, I packed up my things and abandoned him. Vanished without a trace. Moved in with the proto-hipster, whom I dated for nine years.
This wasn’t a marriage. But it felt like one.
Although it is visually and thematically rich, ornate, even rococo, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover has a simple plot. One that is contained within its lengthy title. Central characters are Albert Spica, a gangster; his wife Georgina; Richard, a chef with whom Albert co-owns a restaurant; and Michael, Georgina’s lover. In stage-play (or painting) style, the film’s events take place, almost entirely, at Le Hollandais, Albert’s and Richard’s restaurant. Albert, Georgina, and Albert’s crew of thuggish underlings dine at Le Hollandais nightly, during which time Albert’s extreme brutality, his sadistic treatment of those around him – his wife included – is established. On the first of the film’s seven consecutive nights, Georgina and Michael, another regular patron, begin a love affair, and with the help of Richard and his employees, the lovers carry on, in the restaurant, right under Albert’s nose. When he discovers this, Albert finds Michael, who is hiding out in the book depository where he works, and Albert murders Michael, by tearing pages out of Michael’s favorite book, a book about the French Revolution, crumpling them up, and ramming them down Michael’s throat, with the handle of a wooden cooking spoon. Once she finds her lover’s savaged remains, Georgina begs Richard to cook Michael’s body. The chef reluctantly agrees, and in the film’s climactic scene, all those whom Albert Spica has brutalized gather at Le Hollandais, where Georgina forces her husband, at gunpoint, to eat her lover’s flesh. Or, more specifically, his penis. Which is not prehensile. Georgina then shoots Albert in the head. She refers to him, with evident disgust, as a cannibal.
I’ve never eaten human flesh; however, I have slept with two married men. One was a writer. The other was a chef.
But a plot synopsis of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover only delivers half the story. The brutal half. What the synopsis doesn’t address, what it cannot reveal, is the film’s beauty, which is less about event than it is about mood. Tone. Landscape. In the context of this movie, mood tends to strong-arm narrative. To tyrannize it. Mood that is forged by unrelenting appeals to the senses. Michael Nyman’s Baroque, minimalist composition, titled Memorial, makes heavy use of strings and horns, and it includes the soaring laments of a single soprano voice, which hover an octave above the rest of the orchestra, haunting the proceedings. A certain phrase is repeated, whenever Georgina and Michael are together, such that this melancholy dirge serves as the lovers’ theme.
In terms of visuals, the film clearly mimics the Technicolor process that, from 1922 to 1952, dominated the Hollywood film industry. Noted for its drenched, super-saturated hues, Technicolor was used, most commonly, to film musicals, costume pictures, and animated features. However, the process was also used, at times, for dramas, comedies, even noir and gangster pictures. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover’s characters march through a color-drenched landscape, the camera tracking them in smooth, linear fashion. In Le Hollandais, each room is represented by a particular color – the dining room is red, the kitchen is green, the bathrooms are white – and as the characters enter each of these discrete spaces, their clothing changes color accordingly. The film’s costumes, designed by Jean-Paul Gautier, are at once anachronistic and futuristic, which heightens the sense that the viewer is looking at something constructed. Composed.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover does feel, at times, like a living painting. The kitchen and dining room of Le Hollandais are filled, to bursting, with busy background characters, reminiscent of the figures in a Dutch or Flemish portrait. This abundance is disorienting, making it impossible for the viewer to take in all that is happening at once. If the characters would only hold still, if they were only fixed to a canvas, the viewer could synthesize everything within the frame. But the figures won’t hold still. They aren’t the occupants of a painting. They are alive. In these busy, wide-angle shots, Greenaway doesn’t direct the viewer’s attention. He presents her with an array of stimuli, and he forces the viewer to focus, for herself, on those elements that seem most essential.
When I started dating the proto-hipster, at twenty-five, I was already something of a cinephile, but I would not begin to attempt to write fictions for five years. A collector of kitschy Americana, the proto-hipster had a flair for composition, for set-dressing. The various apartments and rental houses in which we lived were filled with mid-century modern furnishings. The walls held ironic pieces of thrift store art – Spanish bull-fighting notices, three-dimensional pictures of Jesus Christ, detailed medical diagrams of the human eye, semi-pornographic velvet paintings. The rooms were illuminated by lamps with colorful shades, lamps whose ceramic bases represented ballet dancers, African queens, rearing stallions, elephants. The bookshelves were crowded with volumes on art, cinema, architecture, design. There was an extensive collection of vintage paperback erotica. The proto-hipster, you will recall, owned a vintage clothing business, and he gleaned, for me, a killer wardrobe. His talent for costuming, for unifying the contemporary and the retro, was inborn, intrinsic, and he could ascertain, at a glance, how an article of clothing would fit my body. In such matters, I capitulated, submitted to him unconditionally, and for nine years, I was the most stylish woman in many a room. But our relationship involved no brutality. We hardly argued. We were lovely. A beautiful couple. I’ve got the pictures to prove it.
In The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Georgina and Michael do not converse for the first hour of the two-hour film. They meet in various locations, in Le Hollandais, they disrobe, they engage in sexual acts, in the bathrooms, in the kitchens, as the restaurant’s employees go about their business, but the lovers never speak. Once Albert has slain Michael, when Georgina goes to Richard and asks him to cook her lover’s remains, she begs the chef to describe, in detail, the scenes of sexual congress he witnessed between her and Michael.
How can I know it was real, she says, unless someone else was watching?
Fairly early on in our association, the proto-hipster and I stopped discoursing on our love. So it became a supposition. A theory. A postulate. We were never a perfect match. He’s an extrovert. I’m an introvert. But we fulfilled roles. He cooked. I cleaned. He owned something like 7000 records, and together, we moved them eight times. A lot of toting and hauling. We listened to kickass music. We watched essential, thought-provoking films. We hosted gatherings. We adjusted lighting, according to mood. We hung out in bars. We drank. A lot. Vodka, mostly, but also tequila. We had a sex life, one that waned but never expired. People said you two are just the perfect couple. People said I sure would hate it if you two ever broke up. The proto-hipster and I had been together five years when I started suffering from anxiety attacks. And crippling insomnia. In hindsight, here’s how I’ve chosen to interpret these developments: Cracks started appearing, in what I’d long held to be the truth, so I turned to the writing of fictions. It seemed, to me, that I had no choice.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover opens, tightly, on a pack of dogs – including a beautiful Dalmatian – tearing at raw meat. The camera pans up, and a pair of movie ushers draws back velvet curtains to reveal the exterior rear of Le Hollandais. Two white trucks and a white car drive into frame and park on the street, the trucks flanking the car. The scene is lit in a lovely, placid neon-blue. Albert Spica emerges from the car as his underlings drag a man into frame. They tear off the man’s clothes, shove him against the hood of the car, where Albert forces him to eat dog shit. He then smears said shit over the man’s skin, while threatening him with bodily injury, if he doesn’t come up with the money he owes Albert. This visual tension – beautiful, color-drenched landscape framing brutal, horrific event – will be continually emphasized. The thematic tension that is its natural counterpart will become one of the primary engines by which the film is driven.
I do not imagine that the proto-hipster was given to violent fantasies. But I was. As the years of our association marched onward, I thought, with increasing frequency, about shaking him until his teeth rattled. Until they cleaved his tongue in two. I wondered how the proto-hipster would react if I sunk an axe into the crown of his head. Would he keep smiling? Would he keep calling me sugar and hon, as he called all women sugar and hon? And what if I decided to saw off his favorite limb, as he slept? Here was a device to which my forays into fiction-writing were introducing me: my Fantasy Machine. A powerful apparatus that had, evidently, been lying dormant, at the core of me, since the very start. In these, my fiction-writing salad days, doors were continuously opening, within me. Raw ostrich eggs were forever breaking over my head. Was the duality, the contrariness, the perversity that had forged, out of me, such a fucked-up individual, in fact, the fount of all artistry? As I realized that I could simultaneously conceive of the proto-hipster as beloved and despised, I began straddling all kinds of antithetical divides. In my fictions, but also in my life. In my head. In my heart.
Early on, in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, as they sit in the dining room, at Le Hollandais, studying the menu, Albert Spica tells his wife Georgina that the mark of a first-rate chef is said chef’s ability to pair ingredients that don’t seem, at first glance, as though they could possibly be combined.
Hope and despair. Pride and shame. Beauty and brutality. Preservation and destruction. One can conceive of such contrapuntal concepts poised at either end of a spectrum. Or placed in either pan of a balance scale. Or held in either hand of a human being, one whose arms are open wide, as though to embrace the entirety of the known world, of the known universe. But howsoever they are conceived of, these oppositional concepts are linked. United. And they cannot be unbraided. Split. Torn asunder. For such antonyms are dependent, contained within and defined against one another. Things are carved out of what they’re not. What they lack. Without lies, we could not conceive of truth. Without hate, we could not understand love. Without ugliness, we could not appreciate beauty.
Picture this: the dissolution of the tension that holds such concepts together. If we had no points of reference for love and truth and beauty, would our world collapse? Is this contrapuntal tension that which pins together the very fabric of reality?
No one could mistake The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover for reality. The fact that the film’s events did not well up, naturally, from the day-to-day morass of human existence, is acknowledged and emphasized, again and again. This film, like all Peter Greenaway’s films, recognizes its own artifice. The fact that it is a made thing, that it was framed by a point of view, created by a human consciousness. A clever one. What is real about this movie isn’t its aping of reality. It isn’t what it’s telling us about us, individually. It’s what it’s showing us about us, collectively. Typically, realistic films or fictions employ narrative to present artifice-cum-reality, but this film functions more like a painting, more like a poem, in its use of mood to present emotion-cum-truth. And yet, at its heart beats one of the most time-honored of all narrative conventions: The Love Story.
For in spite of its emphasis on sensory engagement, its tyrannical mood, its shocking violence, its formal composition, the second primary engine that drives The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, and the aspect of the film to which, I suspect, its viewers most tightly cling, is the story of Georgina’s and Michael’s love. We keep watching the film to see the couple disrobe and make love in various locations, around the restaurant, in the kitchens, surrounded by drifting feathers, by the dressed carcasses of chickens and ducks, by mounds of sugar and salt and bushels of peppers and tomatoes, under Albert Spica’s nose. We hope against dying hope that it might be possible for Georgina and Michael to make it. To get away. To break free. To live happily ever after.
But that, of course, is not to be.
Like Peter Greenaway’s films, my fictions could be construed as disturbing. Bizarre. Unsettling. Un-real. I share Greenaway’s disinterest in aping reality; I also share his interest in revealing truth. And I’m comfortable with how much lying is required to get there.
Yet a part of me wants, more than anything, to believe in happily ever after.
This is my inaugural attempt at essay-writing, and I’m not sure how I feel about the experience. Narrative is my primary mode of operation, of truth-acquisition. For the very first time, in this piece of writing, I have raised the costumed specters of figures from my own life, but it feels as though I have failed to animate them. With event, with story. It feels as though I’ve stocked this essay with secondary characters, characters I’ve identified with a quick stroke or two. Ersatz elephant underpants. Monkey suit. Paperback erotica. Marionettes. Neurobiologist. Bank teller. Record nerd. Drunk. They feel more like sketches than characters. They’re wearing clothes, but I’ve granted them no real depth, these figures from my actual life. It is making me question whether any of them existed. Or whether I’ve just made them up, to bolster this exploratory meditation on one of my favorite films. We cannot affix the fullness of a human being to the page, so can we actually capture those we have known? If one human being has been edited by another, how much of that human being still remains?
Eight years after the proto-hipster and I joined forces, I pulled out. Vacated the premises. I moved to a new state, a new context, to pursue a graduate degree in creative writing. A year later, I ended our relationship. There was no violence. No one was forced to eat dog shit. No one had the pages of his or her favorite book shoved down his or her throat. No one was murdered. No one was forced, at gunpoint, into anthropophagy. There is absolutely no reason that the proto-hipster and I shouldn’t, today, be the best of friends.
Yet we never speak. Neither of us seems to want to.
Once the reality of our breakup hit me, did I have a breakdown? Did I beg the proto-hipster to take me back? Did I debase myself? Offer him access to sexual avenues I’d previously kept barred? Plead with him to give it another go, to help me reconstruct that which I myself had torn asunder?
I did. And he didn’t.
I do not wish for my relationship with the proto-hipster to comprise the definitive love story of my life. I want that story to involve a desert isle. A tribe of sun-bronzed natives. Or a car chase. No, several car chases. A vibrant criminal underworld. Or a carnival. A zoo. Wrestling. I want there to be Siamese twins, or other human oddities. I want someone to play a game of Russian roulette. To have a gambling problem. A fatal illness. An irrational fear of spoons. Or cabbage. Someone’s got to wear a live muskrat as a hat. To jump a motorcycle through a flaming hoop. Or over fifty school buses. I want someone to climb a clock tower and plunge to his or her death. I want my lover to give me a tracheotomy, with a butter knife and a broken ball point pen. I want the definitive love story of my life to involve romance. Irony. Brutality. Beauty.
Is that so much to ask?
I’m aware that what we refer to when we pronounce the word love, once it has settled, once it has cooled, once it has hardened, probably looks, more often than not, much like my association with the proto-hipster. I know that a relationship in which complete strangers meet and fuck in restaurant bathrooms and kitchens, without saying a word, unaware of one another’s names, is probably destined for failure. That in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, had Albert Spica not murdered his wife’s lover, Georgina’s and Michael’s relationship likely wouldn’t have lasted. I know that long-term, romance is less a narrative than a mood. That it is more about appearance than event. That, given time, love has little to do with things like excitement, disorientation, surprise. That eventually, courtship evolves into stability. Stasis. Equilibrium. Coziness. Comfort. I understand that this, in most cases, is what we mean when we pronounce the word love.
But I am trying, even now, to forget it.
If I knew, before I began them, how my fictions would end, I would never write again. And the same goes for affairs of the heart. A love story might detonate into violent, glittering shards, or it might dissolve into apathy and inertia. In order to begin such a story, however, in order to embark on such a journey, one must first learn to put aside reality. To ignore rational thought. To trust implicitly in one’s Fantasy Machine. For truth is not found at the end of a story, but at its beginning. Where things take shape and become possible. Where a person might get away with murder.
Where hope can vanquish despair. Where you and I have only just met.