Shortly after I moved to San Francisco in 1990, Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) played at the Castro Theatre. There, in the Bay Area's own Cinema Paradiso, I discovered entirely new ways of looking at the world through the lens of directors like Robert Altman, Pedro Almodóvar, and Ingmar Bergman. But the universe of Greenaway's making was something else.
Initially trained as a painter, Greenaway aestheticized every square inch of his frames, from the costumes to the lighting to the set design. The focus on food in The Cook was revelatory, luxuriant, European. My father once remarked that people don't eat in American movies. It wasn't until I saw The Cook that I understood what he meant: Equating the pleasures of the palate with the pleasures of sex the way it does, the film could never have been the work of an American mind.
Years before she buttoned up her kit to play the Queen, Helen Mirren was Georgina, the titular wife. Seated at a baroque dining table in the Hollandais Restaurant with her husband's bilious entourage, she takes a bite from a limp stalk of asparagus she's got in her fingers. It's at once a lascivious gesture and a plaintive attempt to reclaim the eroticism that's missing from her troubled marriage.
But the important point was that the director takes the time to watch what Georgina eats — and how. She understands the theatricality of etiquette, and how the private self is allowed, momentarily, to slip out in a public place. Before seeing The Cook, I hadn't fully appreciated the necessary complicity that takes place between host and customer to construct the artifice of dining out.
Not long after this introduction to Greenaway, I fell in love with someone in San Francisco for the first time. He picked me up on his motorcycle on our first date and we toured the city streets. He stopped in front of Danielle Steel's mansion — as if to suggest, “this too could be ours someday” — before driving to Zuni Café. He wanted to share a roast chicken, the famous dish cooked in a brick oven. We sat next to the fire and I did share it with him; a perfect bird served over panzanella, a warm bread salad.
The seductive powers of place, the ingredients in a dish that spark desire — that's what Greenaway got right in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. And the fact that most memorable meals, like lost loves, are made poignant because they are often only temporary. He got that right, too.