Substructure is an important consideration in what makes a memorable film. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is an eighties movie so full of substructure it will make your head spin. Humiliation, oppression and deprivation are always good motivating forces for propelling the inner emotional journey. These are the conditions faced by the main protagonist, Georgina, in Peter Greenway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. In this classic 80’s black comedy the major themes are greed, gluttony, adultery, violence and control with a sort of romance as a subplot.
Georgina (the Wife) is the central character in the sense that it is she who undergoes the inner change. She is trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering and abusive Albert (the Thief). Both are in a flawed state from the beginning of the film. The flawed characters in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover are what make this film so different to the sanitized characters so often seen in the ubiquitous Hollywood films.
Georgina’s major flaw is fear of confrontation to the point where she takes no responsibility for her own happiness and allows her husband to control her. This shows in the dialogue where she hardly speaks at all, with Albert the power figure having the major speaking role. We don’t really know why she is with Albert since he is so unlikable and she is a class above him. Perhaps it is an upper class attraction to power. It may be this class that prevents her engaging in any confrontation, and she clearly detests Albert for his scenes of confrontation and bullying of others.
Albert is corrupt and his flaws are numerous with insecurity being the basis for his obnoxious behaviour. He confuses his wants (control and power) with his needs (security). He wants ultimate power and control to fulfil his need for security but is threatened by Georgina’s class and somehow sees everything as an attack on his masculinity. Motivated by his need for security, he physically and mentally controls and abuses everyone, including his wife.
Responding from an inner need to regain her own personal power, Georgina wants love and physical closeness as a means of escape from her domineering husband, the keeper of her power. In an attempt to achieve her goal she spontaneously begins an affair with Michael when opportunity presents itself. She continues to conduct the affair under Albert’s nose, although at first he is unaware. Now feeling somewhat liberated, she plays on Albert’s weakness (insecurity) which marks the beginning of her rise to power and his simultaneous demise.
When Albert discovers the affair, he threatens to kill and eat Michael and regains control of Georgina by torturing and killing her lover. However his continued insecurity means that he does not acknowledge his own behaviour as contributing to the affair. He simply feels he has punished Georgina for her wrongdoing. His need to assert his masculinity and power at any cost is effectively the weakness that makes his needs unattainable.
This is the crisis point in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and for Georgina. She knows if she leaves, Albert will find and kill her. She realises her need for love will never be met and she is bitter. Albert’s destruction of her one opportunity for love and freedom motivates her to seek revenge. She takes him at his word and conspires with the Cook to roast Michael whole and serves him to Albert on a platter at the dinner table.
Albert attempts once again to regain control of the situation by drawing his gun. However it is intercepted and delivered to Georgina, who is finally driven to confront him, and forces him to take a mouthful. Of all the disgusting things he has done to others, Albert now is the one to feel disgust and humiliation. She then shoots him in the head thereby gaining ultimate power over him. The dinner tables are turned and the transformation arc is complete. Although the film is dark in nature, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover lifts at this point as the audience is rewarded by the feelings of vindication regarding the main character.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is a memorable film from the eighties because it has shock value and artistic merit. If you want a film with impact that also makes you think, then this one is recommended. Even though The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is twenty years old this year, the themes are as relevant as ever and in my view this makes the film a classic.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is available on DVD at the following links.