Adrian Randall

Peter Greenaway and the Pleasures of the Flesh


Peter Greenaway, still from Drowning by Numbers, 1988

Peter Greenaway has always been a prodigal son of the film world. His films, stunning works of art that rely heavily on sensory and intellectual overload, are born out of a deep hate for Hollywood stagnancy, which Greenaway plainly admits to: “Scorsese has made no progress from D.W. Griffith.” They do not occupy subject matter so much as enact treatises and homage. Thus, while his subjects and motifs change from film to film (love and sex, death and decay, symmetry and asymmetry, etc.), the Greenaway style of literary and phantasmagoric, slow and excessive, proud and portentous, manages to retain itself. If you have not seen his films, imagine Prospero’s Books, which has nearly a hundred nude actors, some perpetually urinating, in a multimedia adaptation of The Tempest; or A Zed and Two Noughts, which, in theorizing taxonomy, features scenes lit by 26 different sources of light. At times it feels as if the screen will burst, whether from the dense and stunning imagery or the pretension. And eventually it did, in a way: Greenaway stopped making narrative films in 1999, and has moved on to performance video and installations. “The cinema is dead, long live the cinema.”

I have always been intrigued by Greenaway’s 1989 film, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. It is his most popular and most memorable movie, in part for its prominent display of a gartered and naked Helen Mirren, and its unsettling finale which involves a cooked penis (remember, this was years before "I Survived Antichrist" shirts went on sale). I like it because it contains one of the most cinematographically innovative sets ever made, three enormous rooms set side by side, each with their own decor and color scheme, which the camera tracks between seamlessly as the narrative arc builds and builds. It allows for a sort of psychosomatic mise-en-scène, which is not so common in other Greenaway films because of the distance they keep from their subjects. Regardless, the film indulges in formalist pretensions: elaborate costumes, artificial lighting, Dutch paintings, French food, and no doubt many other high art and society references which my modest New World upbringing has spared me from.

All these engorging elements fit nicely with the film's theme: food and sex. (To be technical about it, overconsumption and sexual repression.) Even the aspect ratio is far beyond the standard 16:9. Content and form merge. This theme of overeating is given human form as Albert Spica, the Thief, played by Michael Gambon, who most of us know as the latter Dumbledore. The Thief is a sociopathic mob boss who spends most of his time at his own upscale French restaurant, surrounded by his miserable wife (Mirren) and dimwit toadies. From out of the Thief's mouth spews a river of vituperative gristle, both verbal and physical. The film is basically a series of satanic Last Suppers, from which the Wife eventually relieves herself through an in-restaurant affair with a more humble patron. Her Lover's brown corduroy jacket and modest entrees are a lifesaver in the dining room's lake of fire red. They first meet in the bathroom (the final resting place of food), and later consummate their rebellious affection in the kitchen's meat locker, where cold flesh meets desperate warmth. As I mentioned above, the film heads in some wild directions from there.

I figured that the film's generous portions of sex, violence, vomiting, elimination, food prep, etc., all pointed towards some underlying and grandiose statement on hunger and human desire, probably Freud-inspired, locked away under the mire of symbolism. Rather than fight fire with fire and take the Western academic approach to the film, I decided to ask my acupuncturist how Traditional Chinese Medicine approaches hunger and eating disorders. She told me that eating disorders stem from an imbalance in the stomach's earth energy. This is “earth” energy in the Mother Earth sense, the dual nutrition/nurturing that occurs in the first moments of breast-feeding. Even in the Kundalini tradition, the stomach is the site of nurturing and sensual behavior. This makes sense: the Wife, plagued by an abusive binge-eater, attacked by an eating disorder, ultimately resorts to love, and a lover who loves books. I can’t help but point out that her lover and his home are adorned in the earthy tone of old books.

The acupuncturist clarifies something, that TCM is not just clinically different than Western Medicine, but philosophically also. It is a question of how to treat a disorder. Indeed, the biggest problem of psychoanalysis (which very much informs this film) is that patients can never talk or read their way out of their problems. Which is why, for the Wife, resorting to books eventually fails. The Wife dreams of staying in her Lover’s palace of books, hidden away from the pain and disorder of the world. But, crucially, this 'art and intellect will save us' credo slipped into the beginning of the film's sixth act (of seven) turns out to be false. To think is not enough. This film, which is constantly at risk of being self-consumed, over-excessive, ouroboric, stuffy, navel-gazing, engorged, bloated, full of itself, full of shit, in the end redeems itself, is holistic. It says thought will kill us if we do not eventually act, the exact reason why Greenaway left the cinematheque in the first place, because “we can no longer sit in a dark room staring at a wall, we must move.” It seems that this was Greenaway’s solution to his eating problem.

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