The Cook, the Thief….an Acquired Taste

The Cook, the Thief….an Acquired Taste

May 3, 2024 | Blog

I was wondering if everything you can think of, is better up on the big screen, in, you know, a movie? Sex, for sure. Sport, definitely. Landscapes? Perhaps. Faces? Maybe. Beauty? Absolutely. Food? Now, there’s an interesting one.

The recently released art-house Valentine’s movie The Taste of Things, which starred Juliette Binoche, certainly proved that food, its consumption and preparation could make for a heady mix. In fact, the Bon Appétit website suggests that there are at least 19 food films “deserving” of an Oscar (which apparently include Birds of Prey, Chef, Eat Pray Love and Julie and Julia) and the more discerning Eat website goes further, citing no less than 38 “all time best food movies.” Their list adds Willy Wonka, La Grande Bouffe, “greatest film of all time” Jeanne Dielman (you know I’m still smarting from that one), Babette’s Feast, Cocktail, When Harry Met Sally, Goodfellas, Sideways, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, The Phantom Thread and The Menu. TV watchers might also want “behind the scenes” chef shows like Boiling Point and The Bear to be included.

All these lists got me thinking of my own favourite scenes in movies which involve eating (I avoided drinking because, otherwise, I’d be here till doomsday waxing lyrical about Wilder’s stunning The Lost Weekend; Powell and Pressburger’s under-sung The Small Back Room; Figgis’ Oscar winning Leaving Las Vegas; Blake Edwards’ uncharacteristically dark Days of Wine and Roses; J Lee Thompson’s taut wartime drama Ice Cold in Alex and Barbet Schroeder’s Mickey Rourke starring Bukowski adaptation Barfly) and came up with a few memorable moments:

Lady and The Tramp’s iconic spaghetti scene; that “strawberry scene” in Polanski’s Tess; Eastwood’s burger purchase in Dirty Harry; Nicholson getting hissy to the waitress in Five Easy Pieces; De Niro and McGovern’s disastrous “romantic meal” in Leone’s Once upon a Time in America; Michael Douglas going ballistic trying to buy breakfast in a junk food restaurant one minute after it’s turned lunchtime in Falling Down; the first date in Licorice Pizza; the wedding cake sequence in Szifron’s Wild Tales; the lavish picnic scene in Citizen Kane; the fish and chip shop sequence at the beginning of Meadows’ A Room for Romeo Brass (he even plays the chippy seller); Clarence and Alabama’s first date at Rae’s, in Scott’s True Romance (“Who’s your favourite movie star?” “Burt Reynolds.”) and most of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander – and that’s without trying too hard.

Fanny and Alexander Directed by Ingmar Bergman

There’s not much that’s in common with all these – although it does seem like food and romance do appear to be common companions – possibly because “dates” have often “taken in” the idea of going out for a meal (now I come to think of it, you could probably list a restaurant scene in every Woody Allen movie he ever made) and possibly because the consumption of food can provide a sensual pleasure and there are foods which have traditionally been seen as overtly sexual (oysters, bananas, caviar, to name a few).

In the short season of foodie movies selected for screening at the UPP this month, there is, arguably, none better than Peter Greenaway’s cross over art-house hit from 1989 The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, which not only overtly links food with sex, but goes one step further by linking both with death. However, it’s a film which is likely to be divisive and is not one to see with your sensitive aunt. You have been warned.

Two years ago, UPP audiences were treated to a re-mastered print of Greenaway’s breakout film The Draughtsman’s Contract, which I wrote about on these very pages describing him as “priding himself on the idea of oxymoronically telling “non-narrative” stories.” I also praised that movie for the way in which Greenaway’s vision was perfectly accompanied by a unique soundtrack by composer Michael Nyman and glorious cinematography.

Fans will be pleased to know that Nyman is back on soundtrack duties on The Cook and, as you might expect, does some sterling work. The film also marks the third pairing of Greenaway (after A Zed and Two Noughts and The Belly of an Architect) with the French cinematographer Sacha Vierny (who had previously worked with Bunuel on Belle De Jour and Resnais on Last Year at Marienbad (amongst others). To add a further layer of delight, the film’s extravagant costumes were designed by none other than Jean-Paul Gaultier.

The excellent cast includes French star Richard Bohringer (who had already worked with Truffaut, Jean-Jacques Beineix and Claude Lelouche, at this point in his career); Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, theatre actor Alan Howard, Tim Roth and, in minor roles The Royle Family’s Liz Smith and, none other than 70s sweary Essex boy “punk rocker” Ian Dury.

Loosely based on John Ford’s Jacobean drama ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, The Cook (described helpfully by Wikipedia as a “crime drama art film” – I wonder what other movies might fit into this well established genre?) tells the brutal tale of a gangster’s “take over” of a high class restaurant (hence its inclusion in the season: the food on display is as ravishing as the costumes) and duplicitous goings on between (unsurprisingly) his wife and her lover. Don’t expect a piece of English heritage, however. This one is fully deserving of its X (now 18) certificate. The film certainly doesn’t hold back on violence and nudity (something Greenaway would return to, even more controversially, in his 1993 film The Baby of Macon).

Since the 1990s, Greenaway has continued to work and, at 82, apparently has two new projects in the works – a semi-autobiographical documentary (or something) Walking to Paris plus Lucca Mortis (now listed as “untitled Peter Greenaway project”) a Chinese-Swiss-American co-production starring Dustin Hoffman (who has had a rather low profile presence in the movies since his 2017 sexual misconduct accusations) although he also has a small role in Francis Ford Coppola’s long-awaited Megalopolis, which is due to premiere at this year’s Cannes film festival.

The Cook, the Thief… is most definitely not going to be for everyone – an acquired taste it most certainly is. But back in 1989, it played in Screen 3 at Chatham’s long-defunct ABC cinema for a week; grossed over $8 million in the USA and, in London, earned £500 000 on two screens only. You can’t really see a movie this extreme doing quite so well in this day and age.

Palace Pictures, the risk-taking production company, also behind such fascinating British films as The Company of Wolves, Mona Lisa, Scandal and The End of the Affair (and many, many others), who backed Greenaway’s vision: we salute you.

See The Cook, The Thief, His Wife 
& Her Lover on Sunday 5th May (3pm) and Monday 6th May (5.45pm). Click here to book tickets.

Dr Andrew C Webber is a Film teacher and examiner with over 37 years’ experience. He currently contributes to both the Cinema of the 70s and 80s magazines (available on Amazon); cassette gazette fanzine (available from cassette pirate on e-bay) and the Low Noise music podcast available on Spotify and Apple podcasts.

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