Disgust and Mise-en-Scène: THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER (1989, Greenaway)

Disclaimer: This is a continuation of a collection of my thoughts for a personal film portfolio; ideas deriving from Eugenie Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects (2014): ‘Preface: Ten Points to Begin’, Ch. 2 ‘Film Theory’s Absent Centre’, Ch. 6 ‘Disgust and the Cinema of Haut Goût’ and UNSW lecture conducted by Julian Murphet (8 April 2016).

A traditional definition on affect derives from its resistance of structure  – the conveyance of the visceral, immediate, and sensed. However, Brinkema’s polemic stresses the need to look beyond this interiority of feeling, and to turn to other forms of examination, such as the textures, form and technical aspects which amalgamate to create affect. The argument that the turn to affect corresponds with a turn away from detail, thus excludes the importance of aesthetics, structure and form of a film to generate affect – something that is heavily displayed through Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover elevates the high art of cooking, eating and choosing good food – gastronomy – not only serving as a vehicle to comment on consumerist greed and an allegory for Thatcherism, but concurrently works to emit aesthetic value. The formal language, themes and variations, of high gastronomy evoked through the mise-en-scène, function as a powerful tool to which film theory remains a metaphysical dominant term. This is shown through the red colour scheme of the dining room, expressed through the deep red costuming and set design, where the close-ups of aristocratic paintings, the lavish chandeliers and a harpsichord Baroque-like score by Michael Nyman exacerbate the excess of wealth and opulence of Albert’s restaurant.


And yet concurrently the artificiality of the film works to distance the film from reality – something that Brinkema notes as a self-conscious display to bridge the representational and gastronomic concerns of the film. This is illustrated in one of the first sequences, where the camera pans across the green kitchen to reveal that the high singing the audiences assumed were be heard non-diegetically, is actually diegetic opera singing from one of the kitchen boys (Pup). Both the shocking and comical value of this operate to self-reflexively break down any preconception of Greenaway’s film as truthful to reality.

This inauthenticity is further conveyed in the overt colours, which separates spatial dimensions. The camera transitions between these locations with an elegance; horizontal linearity is delivered by means of an ever-restless tracking camera. Brinkema notes that the colour schemes (the dining room as red, the washroom as white, the kitchen as green etc.) constitute an independent structure, working autonomously to reveal the structure of the film, rather than operating as symbolism for the film’s meaning. This formal structuralist sphere is extended through the film’s repetition of days, location and activities. The cut to the days of the week, from Thursday to Tuesday, in addition to the order of the filmic shots (menu, arrival, dining, fucking, returning, departure, beating) highlight the strict arrangement of Greenaway’s film, giving him flexibility to seep in the negative affect of disgust through this mise-en-scène.


Brinkema writes that disgust not only relies on its viscerality for affect, but simultaneously necessitates “active dissecting and analysing”. Greenaway showcases this by exposing the paradox of disgust – the way attraction and revulsion meld into each other. He elevates decay, suggesting it alluringly brings out pleasurable characteristics, represented most explicitly in the horrifyingly slow pan of Michael’s cannibalistic serving – which is garnished with delectable food displays. Gastronomy in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is thus portrayed to communicate the negative of good taste, and the heightened pleasures which derive from the specific forms of rotting and decay. Georgina’s dress, which changes colours according to the contrasting spatial locations, reinforces this – where the bleeding and blending of colours between frames highlights the slow decomposition of form, generates disgust.

Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 6.04.11 pm

Consequently, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover demonstrates Brinkema’s reasoning of the need to return form (including mise-en-scène) to affect, indicating that aspects of a film’s construction cannot be separated from sensual experiences with film, as they are understood and conveyed through them.


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