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Monday, 10 October 2011

New-to-me Directors: Peter Greenaway

After Sergei Parajanov, the next director I chose to turn my attention to was acclaimed British director Peter Greenaway.

When it comes to British directors, most film buffs will immediately think of the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, Edgar Wright and Danny Boyle.
And while these are all great directors, some more than others perhaps, one name is always left out, sometimes purposefully so it seems.
Take for example Empire's list of the 100 Best British films, all the expected choices are there, although the order they are ranked in is very problematic, with a notable exception. Peter Greenaway is one of the finest British directors, so why is he never mentioned? Why are his films always left off such lists? Surely he isn't overly obscure, he had his moment of fame in the late 80's, with The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover.

The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover is the first Greenaway film I have seen, but I was so amazed that I immediately got hold of most of the rest of his work, and have since seen 3 more of his films, all of which I have loved.
But I will try to write this review in keeping with my initial reaction to the film.

 I had heard of this film a couple of times previously, and seen the phrasing of the title mimicked a few times as well, but I had never even considered watching it. Perhaps this was because of the allegedly graphic content, which is something I'm generally put off by.
The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover was a very controversial film in it's day, as it was originally given the choice between an X rating or nor rating at all in the USA, as it is not a pornographic film, and the producers did not want it to be associated with such films, they went with no rating. However this state of affairs led to a considerable amount of protestations and debates in the US.
Famed film critic Roger Ebert was one of the those to champion this films' cause, and eventually the controversy led to the creation of the NC-17 rating.
However watching it now, 22 years after it's original release, the impact is diminished. I have seen films far more brutal and graphic than this but rated R. The standards have obviously changed over the years, but the reputation of this film has not. It is something of a cult classic, with a strong fan base and of course with most people that haven't seen it having a completely off the mark idea of what the film is about and what it contains.
It's violence is certainly shocking, and the nudity is certainly very graphic, but I think what got to most people, and certainly what got to me, was the overwhelming atmosphere combined with Greenaway's peculiar tendencies. For example, people routinely see character getting shot and beaten in fact such things are mainly ignored these days, if the violence had been of that kind, no one would have a problem with this film. However Greenaway employs a much more unfamiliar and disturbing type of violence, the acts of violence themselves are unusual and even unique to this film, and the psychological violence is abundant. This is how the film retained the capacity to shock over all these years.

With this film Greenaway managed to create a masterpiece of contradictions, it is both beautiful and revolting, both thrilling to watch and repelling, high art about horrible characters.

I have seen few films that can rival this films sumptuousness, it's luscious cinematography, rich score, exotic sets, everything about it brings to mind a marvellously decadent and perverse piece of work. It is the exact oppose of those gritty, bare, independent films, and certainly miles away from the cinema of Britain's more celebrated directors, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. 

The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover is a tragic tale of betrayal, revenge and love. As with all of Greenaway's films, the story revolves around a small group of characters, in this case the four titular characters and a handful of supporting ones.
Richard Bohringer (who I had previously seen in Diva) plays the French Cook, a stoic and talented chef who acts as a neutral character to the proceedings, Michael Gambon (of Dumbledore fame) The Thief, the owner of the restaurent where the cook works and an all around horrible person, Helen Mirren plays His Wife, a repressed woman yearning for a more intellectually stimulating and free life than the one she lives with her oafish and controlling husband, and finally Alan Howard plays Her Lover, the exact opposite of The Thief, a book lover who meets a tragic fate at the hands of the jealous Thief. Smaller roles are taken on by a varied cast including Tim Roth, Ciarin Hinds and strangely enough, Ian Dury of The Blockheads.

Michael Gambon is an actor I have seen appear here and there in supporting roles in Hollywood films, and although I've always liked his performances, I never would have thought he would have been capable of bringing such a character as the terrifying Albert Spica (The Thief's proper name) to the screen. He is by far one of the greatest, most despicable villains in Cinema. More popular villains such as Darth Vader, Lord Voldermort etc... resemble nothing more than playground bullies next to the horrible Spica. What makes him such a figure worthy of hatred is the fact that he is actually a very complex character, a villain for sure, but also an obviously insecure man, pitiably so at times. One can observe that his lashings out at those around him, come from a deep insecurity somewhere inside of him. His attitude towards his wife (which makes up most of the films plot) reflects this, he brutalised her and repressed her every second of the time they spent with each other, yet it is also obvious that he loved her, in a sick and twisted kind of way. Everything about Spica was warped and nasty, his love for his wife, his treatment of both his enemies and those in his employ, his yearnings to be part of a more sophisticated class, which he hoped to achieve purely by wealth and outward appearances while remaining horribly vulgar and uneducated. All in all, he was little more than a small time bully, somehow possessed with enough wealth to give him a certain amount of respectability (such is the state of the world these days that this is very close to the truth) and thus permitting him to continue his bullying on a larger scale.

Gambon's flamboyant performance only adds to the sense that certain scenes almost take on an air of the theatre, in their carefully choreographed movements, the actors loud and clear line delivering and overexagerrated scuffles. I think that this is due in large part to the directional style Greenaway employed in this film, it is a very detached style but made up of magnificent tracking shots.

He makes some very interesting stylistic choices in this film, for example he always keeps the camera at the same level, there are very few low shots or high shots, the camera is generally placed at the same level as the action. This adds to the theatrical air, as it gives the viewer the sense that he's observing the proceedings. However this sense is often dismissed by the gliding movements of the camera, which passes through walls with ease and runs over the same track many times. Greenaway employs the same compositions for different shots throughout the film which I thought was most interesting and rather unheard of before. Most directors like to find new and different ways to film a scene that takes place in a location that has been used before, however Greenaway just trundles in, in exactly the same way as before, until a specific camera movement becomes almost synonymous with the the particular room.
This reliance of steady, lenghty tracking shots, and disregard for walls and boundaries puts the sumptuous sets to excellent use. They are truly extraordinary, and the art department deserves a lot of praise for their work, I have never seen such lascivious, detailed and original sets before.

Most of the film takes place in the restaurant, and consequently food plays a large part in the film, sometimes directly, but often indirectly, take for example the first appearance of The Thief, he is smearing dog faeces all over one of his enemies, or the trucks of meat and fish that appear outside the restaurant at the start of the film and remain there throughout with their contents slowly decaying (decay is a theme Greenaway has touched on before, most notably in A Zed And Two Noughts), or the fate of the Lover, who is force fed books until death, or the ultimate fate of The Thief, forced to eat a piece of The Lover's roasted corpse. This is a film that doesn't entirely deal with the pleasant side of eating, in fact, eating takes on an almost revolting form in this film, it appears as something perverse and disgusting.

As with all of Greenaways' films, The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover is visually rich, and loaded with various visual themes and motifs, all of which are open to interpretation due to their symbolic nature.
Many ideas are touched upon throughout the film, and depending on your interpretations they may be religious, spiritual or even political. But I won't go into any in depth analysis here as it would deprive any prospective viewers of the unique experience of watching this film for the first time.

However there are certain aspects of the film that impressed me enormously, so I feel I must mention them here.
One of the first things I noticed about this film were the grand and obvious visual and technical flairs Greenaway employed, such as the bold colour scheme distinguishing each room from one another, for example there is the green kitchen, the red dining room, the white bathroom etc... with each room being composed entirely of different shades of their given colour. But the real genius lay in the transition between one room and another, these are achieved in such a manner as to make them appear to be shot in one fluid take, but the colours of the characters costumes adapt to each room they enter thus showing that an imperceptible cut had taken place. It is a subtle touch, but unique to this film and ingeniously executed.

This is a technique that has been used before, in various ways (I'm thinking of such films as Dick Tracy, with it's primary colours compositions, or Thunderpants, with it's palette made up entirely of shades of green) but I have never seen it used so well.
Understandably, the costumes play a significant role in this film, they were designed by the famous French designer Jean Paul Gaultier and are perfectly fitting for the film. Costume design is not something I tend to pay much attention to when watching a film, but there are some instances where you cannot help but notice what a fantastic job had been done in that department, this is one of those films.

Another compelling aspect of the film was it's highly symbolic nature, this is something I always admire in films, and something that is lacking in many modern films in my opinion.This film can be interpreted in many ways, you may see it as a political piece, an incisive critique of Thatcherite Britain (which was something Greenaway had on his mind while making it) or perhaps a more spiritual piece, with Spica as the Devil, and the Chef as some form of God.

One of the main aspects of Greenaway's films that is often forgotten or simply overlooked, is his biting and ever present sense of humour. It is a very British sense of humour and about as dark as you can get, so of course it will not appeal (or even be apparent) to all. It really is intensely dark, but is present throughout all of his work, Spica for example, was undoubtedly terrifying, yet he was also at times hilarious. Such is the case with many of Greenaway's films, the darkest, most terrifying or disturbing aspects are also the funniest. He never employs out and out comedy, there are no jokes in his films, but rather absurdist situations, clever visual gags, or scenes that are simply so strange that one can't help but laugh. But as he never indulges in comedy per se, the tone of his films stays consistent, and this is fortunate, as much of the film is based around the atmosphere, which is created in part by Nyman's scores, it is a heavy, absorbing atmosphere that is unique to his films, it is never interrupted and of course varies in style from film to film, but it is still absolutely unique to Greenaway's films, it's hard to describe it, but in my opinion it must be experienced by all film buffs.

Occasionally, when I watch a film, everything about it seems to fall in place perfectly, and I am once again left dumdfounded, never having thought such things could be acheived in Cinema. This happened to me whilst watching The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover, I was simultaneously inspired by the brilliance of the
film and saddened at the impermanence of Greenaway's success.
For me, he's a director on the same level as Kubrick and Kurosawa, so right near the top of the cinematic pantheon.
But as with all such things, the very elements that transfix me when watching his films, repel other people. And consequently he is a very divisive director.
Perhaps what makes him such a great director is the fact that he has an understanding of imagery that goes far beyond his work in the Cinema, he trained as a painter and has a vast knowledge of classical painting, as well as all other forms of imagery, Cinema has been his art form of choice for many years, but he is equally proficient in other art forms.
I don't know if this extends to music, but that is of little importance as he has the extremely talented composer Michael Nyman compose most, if not all of his films. Nyman's scores seem tailor-made for Greenaway's films, which isn't the case with most mediocre film score's you hear these days, which could be interchangeable. Nyman's scores are essentially Greenaway's films in music form. Without them, the films, and in particular The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover as it's score is almost omnipresent, would be significantly less amazing. The same thing goes for the director of photography, Sacha Vierny, whose previous credits include Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour, L'Année Dernière à Marienbad (which happened to be a major inspiration for Greenaways' work), and Bunuels' Belle De Jour.
Here is the main theme of the film, composed by Michael Nyman:

All in all, this film had a completely unexpected effect on me. It impressed me in a way only a handful of other films have done and triggered an intense admiration for Greenaway's work of which I am now rather familiar having seen many of his films over the past few days and liking each and every one of them immensely. For me he may very well be the best of British directors, a visual artists without equal, on the same level as Kubrick and vastly superior to the likes of Hitchcock and Lean.
And yet he is so unknown, what didn't he have that stopped him going down in history along with the other great directors? Why is it that some names are still remembered and his is near forgotten by today's film buffs? Obviously his films won't be to the liking of everyone, but I still find his lack of success puzzling.
Perhaps he failed to crack the US audience, forever remaining a European director with a reputation for artistic tendencies.
I suppose that is how the world works, some achieve success others don't. It's all about being in the right place at the right time, the level of talent comes afterwards, that seems to be the best way to explain why directors such as Greenaway are little known whereas directors such as George Lucas, Ridley Scott or Coppola still retain a massive amount of fame even though they haven't done anything interesting for decades although some would argue, including me, that Lucas has never done anything interesting).

The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover is not an easy film to watch, Gambon's character is vile and some scenes are revolting, but ultimately it is one of the greatest films ever made and a wonderful introduction to the genius of Greenaway. I'd highly recommend it, along with the rest of his work, some of which I may review on this blog at some point.

The next New-to-me director is to be the Spaniard Pedro Almodovar and you can see the previous entry here.

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