Year: 1989
Director: Peter Greenaway
Writer: Peter Greenaway
Starring: Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Richard Bohringer, Alan Howard

Peter Greenaway’s 1989 film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is by turns operatic, comedic and repulsive. It tells the gastronomically and astronomically unlikely tale of the love triangle between shady, rags-to-riches businessman and self-proclaimed gourmand Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) and her refined and educated lover Michael (Alan Howard). Caught in the middle of this ménage-a-trois is the brilliant chef Richard (Richard Bohringer), who enjoys Albert’s highly lucrative patronage but detests his gutter antics. From Michael Nyman’s lush score to the theatrical lighting to Greenaway’s deft direction, the film exudes a fabulous sense of cinematic mischief.

While viewers of Boys Don’t Cry must wait well into its narrative before the symptoms of sexual shame erupt onto the screen, no such dawdling attends The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. The film opens with Albert and his cortege of toadying thugs arriving at Richard’s restaurant. But before Albert and Georgina can dine, there is some unpleasant business to attend to. The owner of a “dirty little canteen” is dragged onto a car bonnet, where Albert forces him to eat dog shit. “You must learn the rules,” Albert rants, reminding the canteen owner to pay his debts.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

After this delightful bit of coprophagia[1], Albert has the man stripped naked. Humiliation through enforced public nudity, already seen in Boys Don’t Cry, is a recurring punishment administered by the sexually ashamed: it is what they most fear and thus, they assume, what their enemies most fear[2]. “Albert, leave him alone,” cuts in Georgina’s voice from off-screen. Ignoring her, Albert completes the humiliation of the canteen owner by urinating on him. Peter Greenaway’s biting screenplay and Michael Gambon’s brilliant performance as Albert Spica highlight how those who are most ashamed of their own body are the first to resort to sex- and toilet-based insults.

Albert’s outburst on the way into the restaurant delineates his bodily preoccupations: “Georgie, you’ve got a smudge on your face and ash on your tits… Don’t smoke… It ruins your taste buds, burns your tongue and makes your pee stink… When are you going to learn, smart arse?” Tits, pee, arse. Starting from a simple cigarette, within a few short sentences Albert makes derogatory comments about all of Georgina’s sexual parts. The intense shame of his own animal nature—which he tries to deny through his taste for haute cuisine—is such that his sexual boundaries are constantly violated. No one in Albert Spica’s orbit, not even his supposedly nearest and dearest, escapes the endless torrent of bodily- or sexually-fixated abuse that Michael Gambon mercilessly maintains until the end—well, almost the end—of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

The intense shame of Albert’s own animal nature—which he tries to deny through his taste for haute cuisine—is such that his sexual boundaries are constantly violated

As Albert and his entourage cross the restaurant’s threshold they leave behind the bestial gangland of the outside world and enter the sense-cosseting environs of Richard’s demesne. A choirboy washes the dishes and emits a mesmerizing, otherworldly sound. Sheets of red and green light bathe a kitchen as beautiful as a West End stage. Fabulous aromas conjured by exotic kitchen hands assail the nostrils. Georgina, subtly signalling her longing to rise above the swill of Albert’s life, gravitates to the choirboy. Albert, noticing her rapt attention, prostitutes the boy by tossing a coin into his sink. Albert is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by all things animal and sexual[3]. The corollary of this is an unattainable quest for refinement, which Albert inevitably sabotages by dragging into the sewer. This treadmill of attraction and repulsion is another recurring element among the inmates of Sexcatraz.

The battle lines are soon drawn between Albert and Richard. For Albert’s patronage comes at a price: “Protection against the rash temper of my men. Against the sudden arrival of food poisoning… Against rats… Against the public health inspector.” The unflappable Richard ushers Albert into the dining room then displays his humanity by having Albert’s shit-smeared victim brought into the back of the kitchen, where (in contravention of all food hygiene standards) he is simultaneously hosed down and given a glass of Chablis.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

Albert, meanwhile, holds court in the dining room, directing sexually laden invective at the rag-tag band of thugs and cut throats on his payroll. Georgina’s attention strays to Michael, a gentleman of obvious refinement dining alone and reading a book. Their eyes meet. There’s a crash of cutlery on the table: Albert demands his wife’s attention. She hasn’t been busted, but she will be.

With the connection made between Georgina and Michael the main plot of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover gets underway. Georgina goes to the ladies’ washroom. Michael enters, staring openly at her before gesturing in apology. Georgina hurries back into the foyer, where the ‘Ladies’ sign couldn’t be more obvious. She resolves another wordless encounter with Michael by retreating into the bustle of the dining room, as always dominated by Albert’s foul-mouthed imprecations. The fear of violating Albert’s sexual boundaries—or, more precisely, the fear of being caught—keeps Georgina’s hunger for Michael in check, at least for now. For, no matter how vulgar Albert might be, how ill suited his marriage to Georgina is, by societal standards they are a monogamous couple and her sexual interest in Michael has no social legitimacy.

Predictably enough, Georgina returns to the table only to find Albert’s boorishness insufferable. She makes a quick return to the bathroom on a false pretext. Michael follows. Within moments they’re coupling in a cubicle in the Ladies.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

Albert bursts in, his suspicions raised by Georgina’s prolonged absence. “What are you doing in there,” he sneers. “Are you playing with yourself? That’s not allowed; that’s my property.” Superficially these are run-of-the-mill, throwaway sexual insults. But in the world of sexual shame—the world of Sexcatraz—there’s a lot more going on. Albert’s constricted sexual boundaries prevent him from letting Georgina have sex not just with someone else, but even with herself. This crucial, highly damaging yet commonplace concept of the ownership of another person’s right to make sexual choices will be further explored in Part II of Sexcatraz.

Georgina and Michael are both deeply frightened by their narrow escape, but it only heightens their determination to be together. The next night they have sex in the larder while Richard distracts a drunk and provocative Albert. When he eventually finds Georgina, Albert drags her and the long-suffering choirboy out of the restaurant, intent on making the boy watch him screw Georgina on a car bonnet. Albert’s real intent is not the boy’s sexual education but, like pissing on the canteen owner and Brandon’s stripping and rape in Boys Don’t Cry, sexual humiliation. He pulls up Georgina’s dress only to find she’s not wearing any knickers. This failure of propriety is the severest violation yet of Albert’s boundaries and, as seen in Boys Don’t Cry, when a sexual transgression is severe enough the offended party flies into an uncontrollable rage where they visit sex-based violence or violence-based sex on the perceived transgressor: this is sexual rage. The choirboy escapes while Albert brutally forces himself on Georgina.

Definition: Sexual rage

Rage: “violent uncontrollable anger.” (Oxford English Dictionary) Violent uncontrollable anger arising from the violation of a sexual boundary and the result experience of sexual transgression and shame.

The midsection of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is a drawn-out cinematic tease as the audience anticipates the moment when Albert discovers Georgina’s infidelity. The next scene in the restaurant has Georgina and Michael screwing among the cheese rounds while an increasingly volatile Albert makes himself a nuisance. After Georgina returns Albert inflicts his boorish behaviour on Michael, dragging him over to join their table. Albert instructs Georgina to “tell Michael all about your self” but this backfires when she reveals the three miscarriages that have ruined her reproductive system. The sexual transgressions are coming thick and fast for Albert now; like Lotter and Nissen in Boys Don’t Cry the point of no return approaches.

At the film’s midpoint Albert’s entourage swells to include various other cutpurses and dollies. Albert abuses one of the latter only for her to point out his blindness to the fact that Georgina and Michael always go to the washroom at the same time. For a moment Albert can’t believe that he missed such an obvious sign. He shows his gratitude by stabbing the woman in the cheek with a fork.

Albert composes himself for a moment before barging into the Ladies and scattering various women with their underwear at half-mast. Albert then descends on the kitchen. “I’ll kill him. I’ll eat him,” he vows. Richard hides the naked lovers in the freezer then smuggles them out in a van laden with rotten foodstuffs that Albert had earlier abandoned outside the restaurant. Food, sex, excretion, filth, death… Peter Greenaway collates our widespread repulsion at the animal aspects of human nature. Albert Spica embodies it to an extreme, but we are all affected by it to some extent and live with the unconscious fear that our boundaries will be transgressed to the same uncontrollable extent that led John Lotter and Tom Nissen to commit rape and murder, and now, inevitably, lead to death in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

The outing of Georgina’s infidelity comes as a relief as it allows the film to escape the claustrophobic confines of the restaurant. Michael and Georgina hole up in his bookstore and the choirboy brings them a food hamper. This proves to be their undoing when Albert collars the choirboy. He finds a book in the bottom of the hamper and there, on the flyleaf, is the bookstore’s address. With no one else to vent his rage on, the choirboy incurs Albert’s wrath. Georgina goes to visit the hospitalised choirboy. Michael is alone when Albert and his “rash tempered” men arrive. Continuing the film’s farrago of food, sex, and death, the naked Michael is forced to eat book pages until he chokes.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

The film’s final act is devoted to Georgina and Richard’s revenge on the despicable Mr Spica. Their plan comes together in the now-quiescent kitchen. Georgina, coming to terms with both Michael’s death and her relationship with him, asks Richard to describe what he saw. The farm-raised Richard, comfortable with food, animals, blood, death and sex, pulls no punches in describing Georgina and Michael’s amorous encounters. Georgina breaks down and cries. “Do lovers always behave like that,” she queries, wondering why something as pure as love is seemingly inseparable from the baser passions. “My parents behaved like that,” replies Richard. Georgina is astonished. “They did? You saw them?” Here can be glimpsed the childhood modelling that allowed one man—Richard—to become comfortable with sex while another—Albert—can be safely assumed to have spent his adolescence in a deeply cloistered environment. The result: a lifelong sense of sex as repulsive and illicit; constricted boundaries that cause almost any sexual experience to be sensed as a shameful transgression; the need to contain sexual expression within socially accepted bounds; and his violent response to his wife’s infidelity.

Richard, almost by accident, confesses his own love for Georgina. She capitalises on this to ask that he cooks and serves Michael’s body. Richard refuses. She offers Richard access to her own, still vibrant body. Again he refuses, shouting that she cannot love Michael any more by eating him. Georgina throws down some money and explains that it is not she, but Albert, who will eat Michael. Richard’s throat is dry, his delivery superb: “Put your money away.”

The final scene unfolds as Albert arrives by “special invitation.” A table is set for one. A sumptuous covered dish arrives, borne in by Richard, the victimised canteen owner, and the restaurant’s long-suffering staff including the wheelchair-bound choirboy. The gargantuan meal is placed before Albert, who for one moment thinks all is well—until Georgina whips away the covering. Albert recoils as Greenaway’s camera trawls along Michael’s roasted body with its prominently crisped genitalia. Georgina reminds Albert of his earlier vow to eat Michael. Albert pulls a gun, but a Mesopotamian saucier wrenches it from his grasp.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

The pistol passes to Georgina. “Try the cock, Albert. It’s a delicacy—and you know where it’s been.” Helen Mirren, superb throughout the film, relishes this final twist. Michael Gambon is equally brilliant as the once-bombastic Albert, now a simpering wreck, tries to eat Michael’s love sausage but vomits instead. (Extreme sexual shame literally induces nausea to the point of vomiting, as will be seen on other occasions.) Defeated, Albert slumps back in his chair. Georgina fires.

Luscious, lascivious, ludicrous and a trifle overlong, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is an excellent portrayal of a man whose entire life is shaped by profound sexual shame. The trinity of sexual boundary, violation and reaction seen at the climax of Boys Don’t Cry affects Albert Spica almost constantly, triggering a near-continuous outpouring of sexually related abuse and violence. And, in the final kitchen scene between Georgina and Richard, where the cook describes the rural upbringing that allowed him to normalise sex and other animal aspects of existence, writer/director Peter Greenaway suggests the reason for the difference between Richard and Albert’s levels of tolerance.

Both Boys Don’t Cry and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover have antagonists with significant levels of sexual shame, both display the mechanics of the formula boundary + violation = reaction, both use enforced nudity and rape for humiliation and punishment, and both include sexually-motivated murders. But does this formula still operate in more mundane, everyday situations? Let’s examine the poignant British dark comedy Wish You Were Here.

Next: Wish You Were Here


[1] The consumption of faeces, from the Greek copros, faeces, and phagein, to eat.

[2] The use of nudity in public humiliation can be traced back to antiquity. The Roman historian Tacitus (ca. 56-117 AD) writes that, among the Germanic tribes, when a husband learns his wife has been unfaithful he “strips her in the presence of kinsmen, thrusts her from his house and flogs her through the whole village.”

[3] In Sex in History, G. Rattray Taylor writes that, “beneath a conscious hatred of sex always lies an unconscious fascination with it.”

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