I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. (Bolano 1998, p. 3)

The opening sentence of Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives might serve as a prompt to view Peter Greenaway’s most widely known film, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover, released in 1989. With its unflinching display of coprophagia, mutilation and cannibalism, the film was a controversial success. It prompted walk-outs (Neville 1990; Sinnerbrink 1990), both critical condemnation and acclaim (see McCombs 1990), an extensive body of commentary and allied events such as a food artists Bompass and Parr’s 2009 scratch ‘n’ sniff screening 1 and New General Catalog 224’s twelve, experimental nights of dinner for two in 2006 which required diners to be ‘as open-minded as possible in terms of food, dress, and entertainment’ adding ‘this is not a gross-out fest either, so don’t worry’ (New General Catalog 224 2007).

Greenaway’s work acknowledges Marco Ferreri’s 1973 film La Grande Bouffe, in which four men enact a tacit agreement to commit suicide through over-eating. The original intention was to assign the characters the actors’ names, though various issues, including Albert Finney’s refusal to play thief Albert Spica, left only Richard Bohringer cast as cook Richard Borst, with Michael Gambon being reassigned from the role of the modest, book-reading lover Michael to the uncouth criminal (van Wert 1990, p. 43). The wish to merge the names, and by implication the persons of character and actor, is realised by Ferreri yet only partially accomplished by Greenaway. One can regard this attempt at fusing the two by means of common designation as resonating with the unitary digestive system shared by both character and actor. As chef Ugo ingests, digests, absorbs, and ultimately excretes his food so does the actor Ugo Tognazzi. ‘Of everything that people have in common,’ Georg Simmel (1910) writes, ‘the most common is that they must eat and drink’ yet a few sentences later he reminds us that eating is also the most singular of experiences, as what the individual eats’ can under no circumstances be eaten by another’ (p. 130).

Immediately, one might seize on the distinction between what the character and actor consume – editing and substitution of ingredients spare Ugo Tognazzi being subjected to gavage as Phillipe continually presses duck, goose and chicken pate into his mouth, just as Spica’s first victim Roy is fed dog excrement as actor Willie Ross consumes chocolate, though this disjunction between the act of eating and the cultural associations of what is being eaten recur throughout The Cook, the Thief, culminating in its dénouement. Prior to this, Spica, taking every opportunity to exploit the ignorance he sees in others as a means to bolster his own esteem, encourages his most loyal follower, Mitchell, not certain as to what a prairie oyster is, to eat a piece of bread dipped in water. As he chews on the food, Spica asks him to describe what he envisages this imagined prairie oyster might taste like. Only when Mitchell has swallowed the item at Spica’s command does he disabuse of him of the notion that it has any connection with bivalve molluscs. ‘There now, Mitchell – you have just eaten a sheep’s bollock’ (Greenaway 1991, p. 43), prompting Mitchell to gag and bring up the masticated bread, one of numerous inappropriate passages of substances in and out of the bodies of the characters.

The alimentary canal describes the route from mouth to anus 2, but here the traffic is no longer one way, the routes multiply and veer into unexpected places. Greenaway’s work invites engagement with the systems and classifications that permeate his films and that can seem to stand in for the attenuation of genre narrative, yet with The Cook, The Thief, we are offered not only a contemporary revenge tragedy, as Greenaway observes in his introduction to the script (1991, p. 7) but an allegory of Thatcher’s Britain, stated not only by Greenaway, but explored by several critics including Michael Walsh (2006) who works this back into the literal. As Walsh (2006) emphasizes,

[t]he film reminds us that we are looking at a studio space temporarily and yet thoroughly made over into a restaurant; this is linked with a 1980s economy of consumption and entertainment in which fashionably transitory restaurants actually did colonise studio-like spaces, often staying in them for a period only slightly longer than the production of a film. (p. 297)

Other readings find points of contact with British gangster films (see Lawrence 1997). Though casting the terms of reference wider, it is possible to discern Spica’s compliment in the white-suited yakuza in Itami’s Tampopo, lithe, sensual and intent on giving pleasure where Greenaway’s mob boss is overweight, crude and able only to dispense pain. While similar to James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, the men are polar opposites in their relationship to food. Soprano exudes a pleasure in food that made The Sopranos Family Cookbook one of the least surprising TV spinoffs of 2002 (see Rucker & Sciccolone 2002). By contrast, the supposedly fine ingredients assembled in Borst’s kitchen almost invariably become tainted in one way or another before the viewer can attempt to imagine the results of the cook’s intervention. Words and food comingle in The Sopranos’ canny exploitation of the brand whereas they are mangled in Greenaway’s film such that consumption, real or imagined, is problematic.

Without fail, all pass comment on Greenaway’s distinctive use of colour in the work, assigning a deep blue to the space of the car park, jungle green to the kitchen, a deep red to the dining room and a clinical white to the toilets. Yet this is not so rigid as to deny the possibility of one space staining another, as repeated shots from the open doorway of kitchen to dining room and vice versa illustrate and the purity of the bathroom is ‘soiled’ by the faint red glow of the dining room that emanates from the stalls and urinals. This demarcation is made more apparent by the corresponding shift in colours of the costumes worn by some characters – the thief, his wife and the attendant henchmen – as they pass from one space to another and, tellingly, the resistance to this shift in the spectrum as exhibited by the cook, always attired in his whites, and the unchanging brown worn by the lover. The yellow of the hospital ward and the brown of the book depository complete the palette of room colours. At the very least, we are invited to consider that the spaces mark some characters, condition them to display differing aspects of themselves according to their environment whilst others pass from one to the other untrammelled by any requirement to match their surroundings.

Ironically, it is the most visible and dramatic characters who become chameleons within Greenaway’s environment, whilst the inconspicuous characters – the Cook and the Lover, are unable to blend in, unwilling or unconcerned to respond to the provocations of the different spaces. Food passes through us on a journey from mouth to anus, and it is tempting to regard the tracking of the camera through the spaces, from the car park, via the kitchen and then the dining room to the toilets as mirroring this progression. Michael Nyman’s music suggests peristalsis, leading us from ingestion to excretion, with the contrasting colours highlighting the differing stages of the journey in much the same way as medical diagrams create discernible stages not evident when viewed by means of an endoscopic camera. But the contagion that afflicts the world of the film arises because the assumptions on which such an unspoken journey is based are dispensed with – points of entry and exit are confused and linear progression from one to the other is not to be taken for granted.

As the necessary and subsequent excretion of that which is consumed occur, alimentary and sexual regimes become confused and at times interchangeable, and these conjoined systems exert a pull on all other activities such that not only the other spheres in which the characters engage – discursively, intellectually and emotionally – but the manner in which the audience regard the film, get drawn into the orbit of the gustatory.

The ordering of elements within his films is such that it is difficult not to regard Greenaway as the Draughtsman in The Draughtsman’s Contract, the Architect in Belly of an Architect and, in this film, as the Cook of the title. Each occupation requires the selection and ordering of elements into a whole that will be pleasing to the clients, located both within the world of the film and sat in the darkened auditorium. Where the draughtsman is exploited and violently murdered and the architect bears indignities and infidelity culminating in his suicide, Greenaway as cook is both more authoritative and less visible than those that precede him and survives the film. Like the draughtsman whose twelve drawings chart the intrigue that leads to the demise of the master of the house and the architect who peers through a keyhole at his cuckolding, the cook on occasion stands outside of the narrative and occupies a position akin to that of the viewer. After the murder of the lover, the wife seeks validation of their relationship through the witnessing of the cook, whose recollections correspond with those of the audience:

GEORGINA: What did you see?
RICHARD: I saw you and he in my kitchen making love among the cold meats.
GEORGINA: What else? What else?
RICHARD: I saw him with you in the pantry … I saw him kissing you in the plucking room
[…] GEORGINA: Tell me what you saw
RICHARD: What I saw was what you let me see.
GEORGINA: Of course it was – how else could I know that it was real – unless someone else was looking. Tell me what you saw or are you ashamed to tell me? (p. 86-87)

The need for external validation of actions is one that permeates the behaviour of Georgina’s husband, whether it is the quiescence of his wife in the face of his brutish and vile behaviour, the toadying of his henchmen, or the attributes of taste, refinement and sophistication bestowed upon him by the exotic-sounding menu, the ostentation of the dining room and the eating predilections of others he admires (a motley bunch including Caesar, Hitler and Mussolini). Yet he cannot simply bask in affirmation but needs to possess it, consume it, and thereby turn it to waste. From his spitting out of mispronounced French dishes, the perpetual humiliation of Georgina to his goading of his associates, particularly his most loyal follower and presumed heir apparent Mitchell and his attempts to trump the splendour of the dining room with his own additions, each in turn earns the withering contempt of the cook. Of the neon sign he acquires that proclaims the partnership of cook and thief, the former notes: ‘My brother-in-law owns a fairground (long pause)…maybe he could buy it off you’ (p. 19), while the three hundred sets of fancy pearl-inlaid cutlery purloined from elsewhere are shown to be easily broken by the chef who then remarks: ‘Not very good quality Mr Spica? Perhaps you could use them at home’ (p. 37).

The domestic space of the thief and his wife is alluded to though never seen. But the appearance of Georgina provides sufficient evidence to deduce that it both accommodates the purchases from a generous clothing allowance and is the location where she accumulates visible bruising at the hands of her husband. The reiteration of her status as the thief’s ‘property’, her ability to savour the food for what it is rather than seek assurance in what it represents, and her distaste for the vulgarity that surrounds her husband’s entourage keep her at a remove from the laboured commensality on display, her appetite constrained by the boorishness of those around her and even her protestations dulled by repetition and lack of efficacy. Instigating a liaison with the lover, Michael regenerates her enthusiasm for intimacy and a willingness to seek affirmation in another – ‘I’m getting good at it – aren’t I? […] aren’t I? Aren’t I, Michael?’ (p. 60) – and her appetite for food. Poignantly, as she lies down beside the mutilated corpse of her lover she provides the only instance in the film where food connotes pleasure, pointedly not predicated on elaborate preparation and esoteric ingredients, but constituting something that will satiate hunger:

GEORGINA: when I wake up tomorrow I’d like you to kiss me – and then … (with a smile) … I would like breakfast. Coffee…and fresh rolls…and butter…and marmalade…and toast…and…Goodnight Michael. (p. 79)

Seduced by the wife, aided by the cook and murdered by the thief, Michael’s passivity, naivety (at one point he suggests confronting the homicidal thief) and studiousness render him the antithesis of the husband. Where Spica will loudly provide assurances as to his masculine potency, the adulterous affair commences with hurried, furtive sex in the ladies’ toilets, the harsh white of the space and the pragmatism of having Michael stand on the toilet seat to avoid detection compounding the sense that this is a necessary precursor to more indulgent couplings in the luxuriant store rooms of the kitchen. His obliviousness to the threat that he brings upon himself is a result of his immersion in the written word – Georgina’s second glance at Michael as described in the text indicates that, whilst he has not conflated all that he consumes, his priorities are askew:

Whilst ALBERT drivels on, GEORGINA takes a second look at the MODEST MAN reading at his solitary table. His fork, loaded with food, is poised before being put into his mouth. He’s deeply engrossed in his book. GEORGINA watches him. Finally he goes to put the food in his mouth but the food has dropped off and he bites hard on an empty fork. He surprises himself and looks up to see if anyone has been watching him. (p. 22-23)

The conflation of the alimentary and the sexual in the words and actions of Spica is confirmed by a speech he delivers to his party on the first of the nine evenings at La Hollandaise restaurant:

ALBERT: I’m an artist the way I combine my business and my pleasure. Money’s my business, eating’s my pleasure…and Georgie’s my pleasure too – aren’t you Georgie? (Insinuatingly) – though of a more private kind than stuffing the mouth and feeding the sewers – though […] the pleasures are related. Because the naughty bits and the dirty bits are so close together, it just goes to show you how sex and eating are related. (p. 23)

Coming as this does soon after Spica has used his hands to feed dog excrement to the abject Roy, ‘naughty’ and ‘dirty’ are indicative not so much of innocence as infantilism, unable to distinguish between excretion and sexuality, an ‘intestinal economy’ noted by Angel and Sofia in their consideration of The Cook and Adrian Lynne’s 9 ½ Weeks (1996). Contrast this with the terse, aphoristic New Jersey response to an invitation to mix business and pleasure delivered by Tony Soprano – ‘You don’t shit where you eat’ (Sopranos Season 2, Episode 4).

The restaurant stages Spica’s confusion – we first see him at the point of ingestion – the car park that receives both supplies and diners. The opening shot of the film lingers on a pack of assorted scavenging dogs gnawing on discarded meat in a subterranean level of the car park before panning upwards, propelled by the emergence of Nyman’s music that dissipates the barking, passing through the floor (as the later preponderance of tracking shots will pass through walls). It settles on a pair of liveried waiters in front of a red curtain that they move toward and part, revealing La Hollandaise restaurant and the ground level car park where Spica and associates pull up in their cars. The parting of the curtain, the closing of which marks the conclusion of the film) acknowledges the staging of the space, demarcates its limits and can be read as a dilating orifice.2

Spica and colleagues arrive accompanied by two vans, one brimming with an abundance of meat products, the other stocked with fish and seafood. No more attention is given to the source of this produce that the Cook rejects than his own preferred ingredients that fill the larders of the kitchen – plants, animals, farms and their workers, butchers, fishmongers and the myriad other points of supply are absent from the film which posits a world bounded by rich food and rich diners. While the food is to remain in the open vans until their environmental health hazard becomes such that they are removed, Spica’s party enter the restaurant, not through the front entrance but the rear, exploiting their status as shareholders in the business to violate the workspace of the kitchen staff. As the gaping maw of the car park ingests the gangsters, the kitchen is the space in which they are digested, swallowed up into its cavernous proportions that reflect, as Greenaway notes, ‘the colours of a dark wet jungle’ (p. 15). The steam rising from assorted pans and trees of produce and hanging utensils and foodstuffs contribute to the sense of fecund undergrowth.

It is the space in which the cook exercises absolute authority, the contrast between his diligent brigade and Spica’s conspicuous brigands expressing itself in their awkwardness and superfluousness, tainting dishes either through clumsiness or deliberately, ill at ease with the kitchen workers’ purposefulness and the diminished status of their leader. Yet, for all the distaste that Spica evokes, the Cook’s repeated belittling of him is such that, rather than inviting an unproblematic identification with the Cook, it is possible to see their interplay as symptomatic of a greater malaise. Consequently, Spica’s boorishness encourages Borst’s revulsion at his lack of sophistication. The cook becomes an arbiter of taste, not just in regards to the synaesthetic melange of taste and smell, but in all things where judgement is required. When Spica demands that Richard stop removing feathers from a duck and attend to his wishes, the chef’s sarcastic response is informed not by his culinary knowledge alone, but alludes to a superior level of sophistication, slipping into his native tongue to concoct a new dish:

RICHARD: Mr Spica – this is a duck – ducks are born with feathers on. The French culinary word for duck is canard. Normally the feathers of a canard have to come off. But it is your dinner Mr Spica – do you want the feathers to remain? We could try the dish, I suppose, by leaving the feathers as they are – canard en ses plumes torche. (p. 16)

Praised later by Georgina as having a reputation for a wide range of experimental dishes, one wonders whether she and other diners are complicit in fawning over Borst as the person able to serve up sophistication as much as food. Such a reading would explain Spica’s impotence in chastising the Cook, when all else around him feel the considerable force of his violent anger: Borst, the facilitator of the adultery, escapes unharmed because simply by eating at La Hollandaise, Spica can feel that he is cultured. Unlike any other activity that might satisfy this need, the more prosaic consequence that he will also be fed fulfils a biological imperative. Couple this with the opportunity to display his ill-gotten gains through gestures of conspicuous consumption and the sustained exposure afforded his trophy wife adorned in the £400-a-week clothing allowance he imposes on her and the staging of his authority through being sat at the head of a table and one is invited to regard the dining room as representing the next stage in the digestive process; absorption. It is here that the effect of Spica is felt, where each dish, conversation and incident provides the catalyst for an expression of who he wishes to be. Everyfaux-pas committed by his less enthusiastic companions is seized upon and spat back at them as evidence that they lack the social graces he, explicitly, possesses. The arrival of each platter summons forth poorly understood pronunciations and provides the opportunity to indicate that he makes no distinction between service and servility.

For all the profusion of food in the kitchen, the aptitude of those who prepare it and the elegance of the waiters and splendour of the plates, the finished dishes are noticeable by their absence. The culmination, indeed the justification for the restaurant, is barely visible. The most extended shot of the Cook’s handiwork occurs when Spica takes pleasure in ruining it by dusting it in salt and pepper and then contriving to spill wine over it. Dishes are spoken of and read, as the passing of time is marked by a shot of that day’s menu. We see food by the mouthful that aids our understanding of the interplay between characters. Michael’s aforementioned fork incident and also a delightful shot of Georgina looking with barely concealed disdain at Albert with a drooping asparagus spear balanced between her fingers alludes to her husband’s erectile dysfunction. Yet the camera that glides through the connecting rooms does not dwell on the courses, rendering the film a visual feast without food. Michael, deemed a sufficiently appreciative diner to earn a special dish from the Cook, takes only a cursory glance at his food. His appetite seems attenuated, only recovering when he shares a clandestine meal with Georgina in the Book Depository, the point at which the need for sustenance takes precedence over his reading, even as he lays amidst a room full of books.

Georgina’s response to seeing row upon row of books in the Book Depository, ‘What good are all these books to you? You can’t eat them!’ (p. 69), not only foreshadows subsequent events, but also reveals the dependency she has developed for the restaurant as a brief respite from the domestic humiliations she endures. But, in the absence of food to salivate over, we, the audience, are reduced to having our hunger appeased by listening to the names of foods and dishes, having to read the menus prioritising the discursive over the visual. Writing on gastronomic terms, Michael Shaffer (2007) concludes, ‘there is very little reason to believe that gastronomic expertise is anything more than an ability to more eloquently describe fundamental taste experiences’ (p. 75). This situates Michael as a threat to Spica, as a person of learning by dint of which he might be in a position to challenge the authority of Spica’s taste. The thief’s authority, predicated on shouting down and opposing contrary views, prevents him from acceding to the conciliatory maxim de gustibus non est disputandum (in matters of taste there can be no dispute). Further, his power as Mr Spica (Mr Speaker), the moderator of debate determining who may speak, is powerless before someone who remains mute. Thus, Michael’s silence, or the possibility that he might speak and reveal his superior taste, is equally troubling to the thief.

Unable to ignore the silent threat that Michael poses, Spica belittles him and then, with some coercion, encourages him to sit at his table. Further asserting his control of those around him, Spica forces Georgina to engage in a dialogue with Michael, saying: ‘Your chance to improve your table conversation’ (p. 46). The dialogue however results in the two lovers trumping Spica at his own game of relishing causing offence as Georgina announces ‘the three abortions I’ve had so far have ruined my insides’ (p. 46), as Michael offers his services as a gynaecologist.

That Georgina should enter into the conflation of the alimentary and the sexual, sullying the conversation of the table with such intimate matters, is in part indicative of Albert’s influence upon her, in part a rejection of her role as victim and the determination to assume the position of aggressor. From the very outset Albert has violated distinctions between ingestion and excretion, between the naughty bits and the dirty bits. Following the opening scene of coprophagia, he threatens his victim with a rearrangement of his internal pathways –’next time we make you eat your own shit – after first squeezing it out of you – through your prick like toothpaste’ (p. 13). His insistence on stripping his male victims prior to assaulting further confirms the inference of Georgina’s confession to Michael – ‘He wasn’t really interested in sex – not with me – not with women’ (p. 83).

Habitual vomiting and regurgitation accompany discussions of further challenges to the alimentary/sexual divide. The desirability of an adult drinking breast milk, alludes to the toilet-centred intimacy Albert inflicts on Georgina – ‘we have little sessions, don’t we girl’ (p. 33). Even at the moment of her confessional with the dead Michael, the bragging of his intimacy with Georgina centres on knowledge of her toiletry habits. The threat to force Mitchell to variously ‘chew someone’s bollocks off’ while swallowing his own vomit goads any of the other diners to complain ‘not while we’re eating’ (p. 43). Yet held in check, perhaps through fear or perhaps fascinated by the ghastly spectacle, they resist only when directly confronted. To the man who threatens to call the management after Albert jostles and eyes him up at the urinals, he reveals the futility of complaint – ‘I am the manager’ (p. 44), that to dine at Le Hollandaise is to give tacit acceptance to all the behaviour that it licenses. As Walsh (2006) observes, the political acuteness of Greenaway’s film ‘lies in mobilising a middle-class audience which itself spent the 1980s feasting and trying to repress social question’ (p. 298).

The suppressed violence and the challenges to the socially inscribed limits to what can be consumed simmer throughout the film before boiling over in a quartet of acts provoked by Albert’s rage at his cuckolding that culminates in cannibalism. The first of these, responding to the news from one of his associate’s girlfriends that his wife is having an affair is not to shoot the messenger, but rather to stab her in the cheek with a fork. In this context, the divide between flesh and meat is irrevocably crossed. The assault on the body continues when, in attempting to extract information as to his wife’s whereabouts, Albert tortures the innocent kitchen boy Pup, first cutting off the buttons from his clothes and feeding them to him. Moreover, having exhausted the supply, he proceeds to carve out the victim’s belly button, the now defunct point of entry for food that he opens up. Discovering the location of the lovers by other means, Spica’s subsequent revenge on Michael entails having Mitchell force-feed him pages from his favourite book, pressing them down into his resisting mouth with the handle of a wooden spoon. Even at his most vengeful, Spica detects an opportunity to project himself as a man of taste:

ALBERT: …It is what it is – a revenge killing. An affair of the heart. (he tries inexpert French) A crime passionel. I want no evil gossip spread around about me. They are going to say it was a dignified revenge killing – as they are going to admire the style – he was stuffed – and Albert liked good food – they might even smile – he was stuffed with the tools of his trade – he was stuffed with books – the crummy little book-keeper! (p. 78)

There is much more to be said about the parallels between the consumption of food and of knowledge, but the resonance rings clear. With hindsight, we can appreciate that Albert seems to be rehearsing his own epitaph as much as delivering Michael’s for his own demise is only two days away. The film’s culmination in an act of cannibalism should not, given what has preceded it, come as too much of a surprise. The act reflects the business model that Spica has set up. Clawing protection money from La Hollandaise to spend at La Hollandaise is a variant on ploughing money back into the business that, literally feeding on itself, is not sustainable. Likewise, as Spica’s outbursts become ever more disruptive, the allure of the restaurant, its cachet, cannot but decline. The table set for the Private Function at which Spica meets his demise then feels like a harbinger of what is to come if the situation is not resolved.

Angry, disorientated, conciliatory, and finally fearful, the Thief is presented with the cadaver of the Lover, prepared by the Cook, at the behest of the Wife. Gathered around them are all the henchmen, kitchen staff and, pointedly, the victims of the Thief’s actions. Nyman’s scoring of this section is unashamedly debauched as the camera, for the first time, treats the food to the lingering tracking shot previously reserved for the various rooms of the restaurant. *The glacial progress with which the camera makes its way from the foot to the head of the body, ‘brown and crinkled a little in places’ (p. 91) is seemingly matched by the inordinate amount of time that passes as the view switches from an extreme close-up of Georgina, her determined look substantiated with a loaded pistol, to Albert, whose life choices have diminished to a bullet or a mouthful of human flesh. Time enough for the audience to realise that any empathetic sense of triumphalism renders them complicit. Identification with any of the four main characters exacts a price. We, who have consumed the film, wallowed in every last sumptuous caress of the camera in the cornucopic kitchen, the intimacy of the couplings of the wife and her lover, the sumptuousness of the dining room and, having dutifully registered our disgust at the unconscionable behaviour of the thief and admired the sagacity of the cook, now understand that these pleasures exact a price, that our good taste, pursued by the eyes and mind with vigour, has left us with a diseased body.

GEORGINA: Try the cock Albert. It’s a delicacy. And you know where it’s been.
Even RICHARD has to look at GEORGINA in surprise – at her raw, provocative, ice cool antagonism. ALBERT finally digs the fork into the chest area and, shaking, trembling, cuts out a slice of white meat. Looking up at GEORGINA with the gun pointing at him, and at the threatening CROWD, he slowly brings the meat to his mouth. He can’t do it. He vomits. All down his shirt and suit.
GEORGINA: Go on Albert – eat. (a pause) Bon appétit.
As he looks bewildered. GEORGINA: It’s French.
He takes the meat on his fork to his lips. Just as the meat touches his lips, GEORGINA fires the gun into Albert’s head.
GEORGINA: Cannibal. (p. 92)

*** In its isolation from the systems of supply, Greenaway’s fictitious restaurant careers down a path of unchecked consumption, profligacy begetting decay. Given their economic independence, hunger should not be a concern for the diners at Le Hollandaise, but it is implied that the sustenance they seek is related to notions of status and exclusivity as much as the cravings of the stomach. The inventiveness of the chef leads him to the excess of the final dish, visually rich and morally bankrupt. The allusions to the Garden of Eden in which the lovers entwine and the Last Supper, to which the gathering of Spica and friends cannot help be compared, encompass a cosmos in which various appetites join with one another – food, sex, companionship, wealth, knowledge.

But this is a world that is self-consuming, insensitive to, and insensible of, anything beyond itself. Divorced from an ecology in which it takes its place, a food chain linking predator with prey, producer with consumer, the system can only atrophy as it plunders its dwindling resources. It is a world view that commences with excrement and concludes with cannibalism, a journey from anus to mouth, alluding to an elevation from biological necessity to the expression of culture through choice. Where Greenaway limits himself to the physical deterioration of flesh in the time-lapse decay of A Zed & Two Noughts, here the structural and moral collapse is in evidence. The digestive system rinses its contents through washes of colour that taint everything, even extending beyond the guts of the restaurant, daubing the cerebral space of the book repository. Even the mind, or, in a reading that regards the film through the lens of Thatcher’s Britain, the intellectual, cannot remain apart from the unchecked greed of the body. Ensconced amidst books, the need of the escapees to partake of the handiwork of the Cook is a dependency that precipitates the death of the Lover.

Demonising Spica, regarding him in isolation as a gourmandising grotesque, is to focus on the symptom at the expense of observing the spread of the disease. Failure to recognise that feeding a hunger is not everything, that taking pleasure in the sensation of fullness, being replete with that which has been consumed can suffice, condemns the characters in the film. Consumption should not be an eternal unsatisfied hunger, but one that admits that which is consumed is eliminated. The responsibility of the consumer is then both to derive satisfaction or pleasure from the act and increasingly, where that which is eliminated has been drawn from a finite resource, to ensure that all that is possible to ensure that further consumption can be assured.

Do we eat to live, or do we live to eat? It is time to file that query away in someone else’s century. Our Eureka moment arrives with this question: can we, will we, start eating as if our world depends on it? (Piper 2007, p. viii)


(1.) For example, according to the Institute of Contemporary Art (2009), ‘Bompass and Parr created aromas including rotting meat and dusty books that captured the scent of key moments in Greenaway’s film’ (online).The screening took place on Valentine’s Day (February 14th) 2009 in London.

(2.) Greenaway notes of the centrality of the alimentary in Jacobean drama: ‘The body is seen very much as an image of an alimentary canal wrapped around with flesh’ (qtd. in Douglas 2006, p. 85).

(3.) As Alan Woods (1996) observes of a kitchen tryst, ‘only a curtain separates the thief from his wife and her lover’ (p. 73).


Angel, Maria and Sofia, Zoë (1996). “Cooking Up: Intestinal Economies and the Aesthetics of Specular Orality.” Cultural Studies 10 (3)

Bolano, Roberto (1998). The Savage Detectives. Trans. Natasha Wimmer, 2007. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Douglas, Keesey (2006) . The Films of Peter Greenaway: Sex, death and provocation (Jefferson and London: McFarland and Company)

Greenaway, Peter (1986). A Zed & Two Noughts. (UK/Netherlands: BFI)

Greenaway, Peter (1989). The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover. (Paris: DIS VOIR)

Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) “Scratch ‘n’ Sniff Cinema” http://www.ica.org.uk/?lid=19074 [Accessed 27 November 2010]

La Grande Bouffe, 1973. [Film] Directed by Marco Ferreri. France/Italy: Films 66

Lawrence, Amy (1997). “Chapter 7 Shock Tactics: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989).” The Films of Peter Greenaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

McCombs, Phil, 1990. “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.” The Washington Post, [online] 11 April. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/videos/thecookthethiefhiswifeherlovernc17mccombs_a09ebd.htm [Accessed 27 November 2010]

Neville, Richard (1990). “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and the Old Hippy.” Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June

New General Catalog 224. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover, and Their Dinner Guests(Updated 3 February 2007) Available at: http://www.cameandwent.com/dinnerpressrelease.html [Accessed 27 November 2010]. [online]

Piper, Odessa (2007) Foreword. In Allhof, Fritz and Monroe, Dave eds. Food & Philosophy: Eat, Think and be Merry (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing)

Rucker, Allen and Sciccolone, Michele (2002). The Sopranos Family Cookbook (New York: Time Warner Book Group)

Shaffer, Michael (2007). “Taste, Gastronomic Expertise, and Objectivity.” In Allhof, Fritz and Monroe, Dave eds. Food & Philosophy: Eat, Think and be Merry (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing)

Simmel, Georg (1910). “Sociology of the Meal.” In Frisby, David and Featherstone, Mike, eds. (1997). Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings (London: Sage)

Sinnerbrink, Robert (1990). “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover: A Discourse on Disgust.” Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media and Culture 5 (2) [online] Available at http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/5.2/Sinnerbrink.html [Accessed 27 November 2010]

Tampopo, 1985. [Film] Directed by Jûzô Itami. Japan: New Century Productions

The Belly of an Architect 1987. [Film] Directed by Peter Greenaway. UK/Italy: Tangram Film/Mondial

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover, 1989. [Film] Directed by Peter Greenaway. France/UK: Miramax Films

The Draughtsman’s Contract 1982. [Film] Directed by Peter Greenaway. UK: BFI/Channel Four

The Sopranos 1999. [TV Programme] HBO

van Wert, William F., (1990) Review: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover. Film Quarterly 44(2), pp.42-50

Walsh, Michael (2006). “Allegories of Thatcherism: The Films of Peter Greenaway.” in Friedman, Lester ed. Fires were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (London: Wallflower Press)

Woods, Alan (1996). Being Naked Playing Dead: The Art of Peter Greenaway (Manchester: Manchester University Press)