Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 5, No. 2, 1992
Film: Matters of Style
Edited by Adrian Martin

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover: a discourse on disgust

Robert Sinnerbrink

"The characteristic of a human being is that - and this is very much in contrast with other animals - he doesn't know what to do with his shit. He is encumbered by his shit... Civilisation means shit, cloaca maxima". Jacques Lacan 1

"The word vomit arrests the vicariousness of disgust, it puts the thing in the mouth; it substitutes, but only for example, oral for anal. It is determined by the system of the beautiful, "the symbol of morality," as its other; it is then for philosophy, still, an elixir, even in the quintessence of its bad taste." Jacques Derrida 2

"It all ends up as shit in the end." Albert Spica in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

Peter Greenaway's recent film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, seems to provoke a kind of critical indigestion. From outrage to homage, moralistic renunciation to style and fashion spectacle, the number of different responses and readings the film has provoked shows it to be a volatile site of textual contestation. It is a sensuous and metaphorical feast, a spectacle of visual and visceral excess; but then, as after any feast, there may be a sense of bloatedness, nausea, overindulgence. As audience, we are also diners in the lavish Le Hollandais; complete with French Chef, haute cuisine, and Gaultier-clad patrons posing amidst the decadent fin-de-siecle decor. Auteur (Chef) Greenaway tucks in our napkins, places the menus on our laps, as we await in dignified expectation - our bellies murmuring perhaps - for the velvet curtains to part and the spectacle to begin...

But judging by the violent response to the film, many found it unpalatable and nauseating. Emetic rather than mimetic art perhaps. For example, an article by Richard Neville demanded to know: "What is this film's insight into the human condition? When the credits roll what are we left with?" 3 He promptly answers himself - shit. While Neville admits that he fled the cinema before the film's end, he still uses it to deliver his own testimony of conscience (ex-hippy/radical gone straight) and a strident call for a kind of new-age, eco-aesthetics: "The arts are as much a part of our environment as trees and sunshine." 4 Apart from recalling Platonic misgivings about art and the (moral/social) functions of artists, the problem which Neville generally poses is one which he both describes and enacts: "Film and video have reached such levels of sophistication that our critical sensibilities are overwhelmed, numbed and inoperative." 5

While this may be true of the aesthetico-moral criticism Neville employs, it seems to suggest that perhaps different critical strategies are appropriate to engage with the film. Neville, however, would prefer that such films were not made, or if they are, that they should not be seen. The problem that emerges here is one of the concealed political stance of any aesthetic, however obscured or veiled by nostalgic rhetoric. As Meaghan Morris points out, much film criticism in Australia still seems to rely on the 'gut reaction' of the critic. 6 The critic acts as either a representative or uniquely idiosyncratic consumer, testing the film against his/her immediate taste, then expressing this product evaluation in the form of a review. In this case, Neville's 'gut-reaction' was one of nausea and disgust; but at no point in his discussion is this reaction explored. I would suggest that this response triggered by the film - this collusion of distaste and disgust subverting its visual pleasures - is one of its most important (textual) devices. Our pleasure in the visual luxuriousness of the film, our 'disinterested' appreciation of the film's aesthetic qualities, is undermined by much of the graphic violence, the imagery of death and decay. A shift then, from the visual to the visceral; an inscription of the spectator's body during the incorporation of the text. Perhaps also a critique of the aesthetics of 'taste' and the detached appreciation of the 'autonomous' artwork; the response of nausea or disgust (opposite of taste) undermines a contemplative visual consumption through an interruption of visual pleasure by direct visceral response. Difficult to incorporate, resisting easy digestion, The Cook, the Thief is a transgressive text; one which, in its self-reflexivity and appropriation of historical forms, allows several simultaneous readings.

The notion of taste as the prime sense of (aesthetic/moral) discrimination is a mode of liberal humanist criticism, derived from the aesthetics of Kant. Briefly, in the Critique Of Judgement, Kant wishes to demonstrate the autonomy of works of art, and poses an aesthetics in which universal (disinterested) judgements of beauty can be made by individuals in possession of 'good taste'. So, the liberal humanist approaching, say, The Cook, the Thief makes a critical response (invoking his/her culturally coded 'taste') to grasp the work experientially and personally, "absorbing it into one's richly subjective interiority". 7 I would suggest it is this particular aesthetic - with all its veiled political affiliations - that The Cook, the Thief. seems to undermine. The representations of contemplative, visual 'high-art' - Greenaway's 'painterly' style and composition, the allusions to the European art world - are ruptured by the simultaneous depiction of corporeal abjection and cruelty. The Cook, the Thief exposes some of the difficulties which arise when applying liberal humanist modes of criticism to a complex, self-reflexive text.

A complex, contradictory text which is being approached in ways which fail to engage with it critically: firstly as a film, a specific medium with its own modes of representation, its own system of signs; and secondly, as a text which raises questions about representations and readings in (postmodern) texts and contexts.

The Cook, the Thief is stylised, self-consciously theatrical in structure, but appropriated for cinematic space. The opening shot of dogs feeding on flesh moves slowly upward (from its 'ground' as it were) past industrial-type scaffolding, to reveal red plush curtains which are opened by two smartly tailored waiters (or ushers). We are in for a theatrical performance. The action begins with Spica and his gang arriving in a car, leaping out, and proceeding to bash and humiliate a naked victim, smearing him with dog excrement. The scene is framed by two delivery vans whose normally prosaic status is transformed by the revelation of their contents of artfully arranged meat and fish. An exotic young man and young woman are placed picturesquely in each, forming an Edenic tableau of flesh and plenitude; a triptych of violence, flesh and sensuality which prefigures the rest of the film. The importance of the frame - the parergon - becomes critical:

the marker of limits, that which impermeable boundary between the artwork (argon) and everything that belongs to its background, context, space of exhibition, mise en scene or whatever. 8

Here, the action is the spectacle of an unknown character being smeared with dog shit. The frame is the carefully composed tableau of flesh and icons of male and female beauty; serene, detached, contemplative, it is this frame which overwhelms or contradicts the violence depicted within. The larger 'frame' involves elements like the music, the setting, the contextualised viewing of a film by Peter Greenaway in a certain social space, with all the attendant meanings and suppositions this brings to the scene. So the broad opposition can be outlined as corporeality/ violence/ excrement as opposed to figuration/serenity/art. It is these distinctions which are undermined in this opening scene and then throughout the whole film. For Kant, the metaphor of the frame delimits the proper space of aesthetic representation; what is pertinent here is how for Derrida

such boundaries are not so easily fixed; there is always a tendency for 'inessential' details (outworks, parerga, ornamental settings) to thrust themselves forward and upset the logic of Kant's argumentation. 9

The disorientation provoked by such unexplained violence effectively shortcircuits 'detached, disinterested' contemplation; thus the Kantian aesthetic imperative is subverted. The serenity and detachment necessary for the exercise of taste, judgement, and the discrimination of beauty, are brutally undermined.

Calming surveying this violence and humiliation, we are introduced to the Wife, Georgina. She is represented from the start as detached and disinterested, framed in immaculate clothing: both object and icon. Of interest here is the concentration on her as an enigma, silent and detached, during the onslaught of violence and humiliation which constitutes the action of the scene. As Laura Mulvey points out, this is an old ruse: "the image of woman is the best way of stopping narrative flow without trouble, unpleasure." 10 The power differential she is subject to is quickly established; she speaks - cultured, reserved - and is humiliated for her attempt at class distinction by Albert's parody of upper-class etiquette: "You really shouldn't smoke you know, it makes you look like a tart". His blunt assertion of power and her submission are unexplained. The Thief and his Wife are not represented as 'fully fleshed' characters; but as their medieval titles suggest, they are signs or ciphers around which oppositions are constructed and contested. Georgina, the Wife, becomes the socially inscribed (Gaultier-clad) object of desire; the pivot around which the Thief and the bookish Lover enact an unstable Mind/Body duality. Spica (Aspic, Despicable, Speaker) becomes the embodiment of greed, insatiable appetites and grotesque corporeality, who with an almost Sadean cruelty wishes to consume everything in sight. Signifying the 'vulgarity' and 'bad taste' of the nouveau riche, Spica is both parody and cliche. His is the 'grotesque body' surrounded by sumptuous banquet imagery; an enormous mouth and alimentary canal that seeks to master the world by consumption. He recalls Gargantua in his Rabelaisian excess:

In the act of eating...the confines between the body and the world are overstepped by the body...It triumphs over the world, over its enemy, celebrates its victory, grows at the world's expense. 11

The violent cruelty of the Thief recalls, in the baroque virtuosity of his revenge, the corporeal nihilism of Jacobean tragedy. The volatile state prior to the French Revolution - the period that so interests the Lover and becomes mode and symbol of his death - is transposed into the present through the revenge tragedy model and the historical 'text' of the Revolution itself. Spica and his gang are the most conspicuous of consumers; an inverted, parodic model of the inheritors of the Revolution.

Moving from the cool blue of the carpark, a slow, stately tracking shot brings us into the kitchen, a large medieval-type space bustling with life and bathed in a soft green light. This is the sanctuary, the place of nurturance and transformation, guarded by the Cook, where the miraculous transformation of the raw into the cooked takes place. Cooking becomes a metaphor for a series of transformations throughout the rest of the film: nature into culture; raw flesh into food and art, both of which are linked in an economy of excess; and finally, murder into sacrifice.

The most obvious metaphorical transformation is from inedible flesh into culturally meaningful food, a distinction which Levi-Strauss saw as "analogically related to the opposition 'nature-foreign'" 12 This becomes relevant in the construction of the Lover as Other/foreign to the Thief and, by analogy, reiterates the Otherness of the Wife. The Lover and the Wife understand the codes of high culture, here the etiquette of haute (French) cuisine. They order the same meals - or rather, the Thief does, he 'intuits' their taste - and maintain the same detached decorum or disinterested appreciation of the beauty of dining. The aesthetic of consumption becomes a metaphorical seduction; they eye each other lustily across the restaurant, they have similar 'taste'. The Thief, by contrast, is gross, corporeal; an inverted parody of the Enlightenment humanism of the Lover. An apparent Body/Mind duality then, but one in which Mind transgresses the boundaries and limits of the Body - its space of power and dominion, its 'property', even its historical boundaries - but ends with both being destroyed.

Yet this neat distinction is disallowed from the start, as we see the Lover - conservatively dressed in unchanging, parchment brown - busily consuming a book along with his meal. He is an anchronism, an anomaly, the only character whose colour of dress does not reflect his changes in environment. Absorbed in his books, in the past, nostalgically he recalls the period of the Revolution; its moribund inheritor, he effectively signifies an ironic distancing from an already alienated and parodied past. Yet he has a very physical affair with the Wife; their sexuality transgresses the neat polarisation of the Lover as Mind and the Thief as Body. This simple duality is subverted in that the minor term in each character actually is shown to be dominant: the Lover is mainly silent, but exists as a sexualised body; the Thief is constantly speaking and commenting, but appears to have a displaced, metaphorical sexuality (his obsession with excrement, toilets, washing hands, object fetishism). Does this duality also have political and cultural dimensions? The Lover as Enlightenment rationalism, high cultural modernism, a kind of early capitalism, perhaps; the Thief as grotesque embodiment of consumer capitalism, the monologic discourse which, according to Lyotard, seeks to absorb all in its language of economic consumption and exchange. 13 So, theatrical 'Jacobean' binaries - Mind/Body, Nature/Culture, Suffering/Revenge - serve here as masks, metaphors, for a different order of oppositions and values; an oblique critique of consumption and exchange. The restaurant becomes a model of a 'general economy' of exchange - of bodies and pain, foods and excrement, wealth and signifiers.

As Other to the Thief, the embodiment of voracious consumption, the Lover must be consumed and introjected. Yet the Thief is unable to complete this final act; he vomits, and cannot finally consume that which is Other. The Lover, devoid of speech, and represented as Body during the initial stages of the affair, is restored after his murder (death by writing, parodic consumption and destruction of the Revolution) into a 'cooked' Body; obscene parody of corporeality and culture, and sacrificial revenge of the Wife/Other. So the supposed Mind/Body duality initially posited by the Lover and the Thief ends with the negation of both. The Wife, now having acquired speech, her own speech, is then the synthesis of these terms; but in their destruction her triumph suggests the untenability of their simplistic opposition.

All these possible oppositions, however, exclude the Wife as an active agent in the exchange of power; she is Other, outside this phallocentric order of discourse. She acts outside this order, through ruses, tactics, guile. Her relationship to the Thief is presented in terms of dominance and submission; an established order, against which she is defined and constrained, which she tries to undermine and finally inverts. The Wife emerges as a 'speaking' subject only after the murder of the Lover. She needs confirmation and validation of her sexuality, the reality of the affair, from the polyvalent figure of the Cook; he is simultaneously Father-figure and foreigner, audience and director, witness and voyeur. She also needs his permission for the final transformation of the Lover into sacrifice, securing the Thief's death by her own hand. It is only after the sacrifice of the Lover and the slaying of her husband, that the Wife emerges as an independent entity with her own speech.

It has been noted that the set is constructed as a kind of "metaphorical alimentary canal" and as such is a "black joke on consumerism". 14 We begin at the anus, the rear (end) of the restaurant, the smearing of a man with shit; we then move through the stomach, the interior as it were, normally hidden from view; finally we arrive at the mouth, the carnal opulence of Le Hollandais' main dining room, the site of the cultured discrimination of taste. This is the domain - or perhaps the 'erotogenic' zone - of visual and visceral pleasures, of contemplation and consumption. Lacan describes such zones or spaces as being structured in the form of a rim:

a (folded) space designating both inside and outside without itself being either. This rim which expels wastes also 'attracts' and is attracted by objects. It seeks satisfaction by 'filling itself' with the object, seeking its attainment, ingestion, incorporation and eventual expulsion. 15

Throughout the film there is a reversal of sense in the slow camera movement through the set. From excrement and expulsion to cuisine and consumption, this spatiality, or even cinematic anatomy, exemplifies the inversion or deconstruction of some of the apparent oppositions in the film: taste/disgust, consumption/expulsion, interiority/exteriority. At this point (in the metaphorical mouth of the film) it is worth quoting Derrida on 'exemplorality':

We judge to be coarse and ignoble the "mental attitude" of those who confine themselves to eating and drinking - to the mere enjoyments of sense. In the first exemplorality, in the exemplary orality, it is a question of singing and hearing, of unconsummated voice or ideal consummation, of a heightened or interiorized sensibility; in the second case that of a consuming orality which as such, as an interested taste or as actual tasting, can have nothing to do with pure taste...We still have before us the question of where to inscribe disgust. Would not disgust, by turning back against actual tasting, also be the origin of pure taste, in the wake of a sort of catastrophe? 16

The opposition that emerges is that between 'consuming orality' (The Thief, and his Gang) and 'exemplary orality' (The Lover, the Wife, the singing Child). The former is vomitive and abusive; the destructive site of appropriation and consumption. The latter is sensitive and sexual; the site of tasting and kissing, of pleasure and speech. The role of disgust then becomes more important as the disturbing images of the Lover's death - a textual death, or writing itself as death, the forced consumption of the historical text, the text or 'master narrative' of history perhaps - threaten to overwhelm the boundaries or the frame of our contemplation. An intellectual/ metaphorical death, which is simultaneously brutal and confronting, provoking nausea and disgust. The Lover is 'stuffed' with the words of his favourite book - on the French Revolution - and dies by being forced to interiorize orally, that which he consumed only visually and mentally. An ironic metaphor for the 'power' of writing, even the totalising tendency of 'master narratives' (like the dialectical movement of history, the accumulation of wealth, the revolutionary emancipation of the working classes) which Lyotard claims are now viewed "with incredulity" 17 from the fragmented perspectives of postmodernity. Here, the subject of history meets its end, ironically of course, in the violent, forced introjection of an historical text. In this case, writing - as Derrida suggests - (graphically) breaches "the barrier between inside and outside and thus (potentially) between all such binary oppositions". 18 For the Lover however, it is through an ironic synthesis of text and body that his death occurs; in Albert Spica's (postmodern?) version of the Jacobean revenge slaying, the Lover is murdered not with the archetypal knife or dagger, not through a mysterious poison or contaminated object, but with the text of modern history itself.

The Lover is sacrificed in an ironic banquet scene, dished up as a meal for the murderous Thief. He is forced by the Wife to 'eat his own words' - and consume the Lover's flesh. This whole scene of death, sacrifice, and cannibalism can be looked at in terms of Bataille's notions of sacrifice and "non-productive expenditure". 19 For Bataille, within Western bourgeois society, non-productive expenditure is often veiled behind other kinds of activities; for example, those with an emphasis on consumption and/ or loss - luxurious living, mourning, war, sport, art, perverse sexual activity, etc. 20 It is here that the pleasure principle is given full reign, and this logic of destruction forms the basis for true poetry; that which is synonymous with expenditure, that which "signifies...creation by means of loss", and that whose "meaning is therefore close to sacrifice". 21 In terms of the film, the transformation of the Lover from corpse to food is a sacrifice; the offering of the sacred (etymologically speaking, both the 'holy' and the 'accursed') and a "sacred transgression of the Law." 22 This transgression takes place in the restaurant - "closed for a private function" - which itself could be seen as a space of unproductive expenditure; a "sacred world" of "festival, intoxicating religious ritual, and dance" 23 (remembering of course that Spica, the good late-capitalist, is presumably making a fortune out of the place). It is here that the Cook - French, cultured, Father-figure, etc. - agrees to transform the Lover into food. He practices his own culinary semiotics (black food being the most expensive commodity, as it signifies the consumption and assimilation, the mastery over death) but now he dishes up death itself on a platter: garnished (framed) and steaming, ready to be consumed. Here, amidst the signs of excessive affluence, the icons of high-European culture and art, a final transgression and sacrifice takes place; a collision of the sacred and the profane, an act of cannibalism and the revenge killing of the Thief. The sacrifice of the Lover then, becomes "both murder, and the sign of interdiction against murder"; 24 the Wife's revenge.

Just before his death, the Thief is forced to eat the Lover's flesh. His Wife suggests starting at the cock ("after all, you know where its been") but the Thief declines, and starts elsewhere. Yet he cannot swallow the flesh; he falters and vomits it out again before being shot by the Wife. A gruesome denouement in which the ironic dialectic of taste and disgust comes to a (graphic) climax. Choking on excess. Dwelling briefly on this resolution, using concepts from the 'corporeal feminism' of Elizabeth Grosz, 25 the question of the representation of the Wife can be approached once more.

The prominence of corporeality in the film is undeniable; a morphology of character, an anatomy of morality questioned through the continuous focus on 'the body' as a category of representation. Again, a politics of the body is implied, as is a politics of representation. And as Stephen Heath points out: "any discourse which fails to take account of the problem of sexual difference in its own enunciation and address will be, within a patriarchal order, precisely indifferent, a reflection of male domination." 26

In The Cook, the Thief questions arise from the construction of the (sexually differentiated) body, which analyses in terms of the appropriation of Jacobean Revenge Tragedy models do not adequately deal with. In the Rabelaisian excess of the 'Grotesque Body' - here incarnated in the form of the Gargantuan Albert Spica - Jacobean drama posits a particular mode of corporeality with its own relationship to interiority and exteriority:

[Jacobean] drama reveals a tension between traditions of interiority and corporeality. The spectacular body is continually present, as visible on stage as on the scaffold. Thus the preoccupations with violence, sexuality and death which Eliot and humanist criticism [not to mention Richard Neville!] generally found so repugnant. 27

Yet Jacobean drama itself arose in a certain socio-historical context which informs its (patriarchal) discourse on the body. Here, the body was regarded with suspicion and fascination: "an obsessive concentration on the purely animal aspects of human existence, eating, drinking, defecation, and copulation." 28 Underlying the satire was an ambivalent tension between "the Renaissance emphasis on the richness of sensual experience colliding with the 'Machiavellian' cynicism regarding all human experience." 29 Perhaps the resulting representations of corporeality - pre-Cartesian, written during the first quarter of the 17th Century - reflect a 'monist' view of corporeality and subjectivity: a conception of the body and the world in which, as Peter Brook has put it,

the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit are indivisible. They coexist painfully in the same frame: the poet has a foot in the mud, an eye on the stars and a dagger in the hand. 30

The "abrupt and barbarous tonal qualities" 31 which Artaud so much admired in this theatre found their expression at a time of social and historical change; however, the appropriation of this model into a 'postmodern' context via medium of film presents its own difficulties.

In this respect, it is important to note that the body - as an object and as a category of representation - is a product of relations of power and a site of social/cultural inscription. 32 The body becomes represented and contested as an element within discourse, 33 but discourses themselves inscribe bodies in different ways; it can be argued therefore, that when representations of the body - and sexual difference - are constructed through cinematic images, the politics of the image, representation and sexuality, need to also be addressed and examined. This becomes relevant to a discussion of film as Jacqueline Rose describes:

within feminism, the debate about sexuality is being posed increasingly with reference to construction or representation (the dialogue with psychoanalysis). In this debate, the cinematic image is taken as both the model of and a term for a process of representation through which sexual difference is constructed and maintained. 34

A Mind/Body dualism seems to be posited, then subverted; it is in the destruction of these polar identities - with permission/intervention of the Cook/Father-figure - that the Wife finally emerges as a 'speaking subject'. The duality initially posited is conceived in patriarchal terms - body/mind, nature/culture, feminine/masculine. But it is these oppositions which are subverted or inverted throughout the film. The dialectic of power and conflict between characters has two axes - that between Albert and Georgina and that between Albert and the Lover - yet within these relations, the Wife is always either the contested or excluded term. The 'object' of the struggle, she is still subject to its determinations, even in her revenge. What arises in relation to the Wife is "the question of woman as spectacle." 35 Even fashion spectacle, as the continual attention to her clothing, hairstyle, and undergarments might suggest; the (female) body inscribed with the insignia of (high) culture, garnished as object for the male gaze. As Jacqueline Rose points out, this "image of woman as other, dark continent" is defined in terms "of a phallic reference". 36 She is the third term in an apparent duality of Mind and Body - a masculine representation which must exclude her as Other - but one which still depicts her primarily in relation to her sexuality. As in classical cinema, the Wife's sexuality "is frozen into her body as spectacle, the object of phallic desire and/or identification." 37

When asked by her Lover why she remains with the Thief, she, like a mirror, reflects the question back to him: "Why not?". The Lover begins an anecdote of a film he once saw, where his fascination for the Lovers on the screen was intensified by their refusal to speak. When they did, he lost all interest in the plot. The Wife then recontextualizes this mise en abÔme by asking the Lover whether he'll lose interest in their affair now that they've spoken. At this point, there is a shift in the narrative space. The Lover moves one step beyond the diegetic register of the exchange and simply says: "It was only a film." She remains within the narrative frame of the dialogue, whereas he has the power to speak from a space outside, to point to the 'frame' of this particular narrative - a film itself. But if the lover is allowed self-reflexivity to point to the 'frame' of the medium, he is also pointing to the Wife framed within. A gaze of a different sort, then, falls upon her. The importance of speech - the truth of speaking - becomes even more important after the Lover's death as the Wife needs to validate her experience, her sexuality, with regard to a (phallic?) reference outside herself. Firstly, to the dead Lover (and audience) during her first monologue in the Book Repository; and secondly, to the Father-figure of the Cook whom she asks to cook the Lover's corpse. He needs to recount what he saw, tell her he saw them making love, in order to validate her experience. The gaze is always upon her.

The last sequence of the Wife's revenge can also be seen in terms of Julia Kristeva's notion of the abject. I would like to draw together earlier approaches in view of Kristeva's analysis of "the ways in which 'proper' subjectivity and sociality are founded on the (impossible) exclusion or expulsion of the improper, the unclean and the disorderly." 38 For Kristeva, that which is excluded - the abject - is never fully excluded "but hovers at the edges or borders of our existence". 39 The three categories of 'abjects' against which both social and individual taboos are erected are related to the categories of "food, waste and the signs of sexual difference" and these gain "personal and visceral expression in the form of disgust." 40 In the re-presentation of the Lover's corpse as food and sacrifice we are taken to the limit of horror and abjection. For Kristeva, the corpse,

the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything...The corpse seen without God, and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. 41

It gets worse: the corpse has been cooked and served as a meal which the Wife forces the Thief to consume. She draws attention to/with the phallus, pointing a gun in his direction. We witness a black parody of the "introjection of the ego ideal" referring both to the "cannibalistic relation between mother and child...and to the totem meal, where absorption of the father's body leads to appropriation of his status and name." 42 The transgression ends with the Thief's death, his murder. For the Wife, this could be equivalent to an ironic "expulsion of the abject" and a necessary condition for her "insertion into the Symbolic order" and emergence as a speaking being. 43 Her final word "Cannibal!" signals her new voice; our disgust, our feeling of abjection at the end of the film may spring from the fact that "we ourselves are implicated in this waste - it is us, it cannot be completely exteriorised." 44 For Kristeva, the creative arts represent partially successful attempts to sublimate the abject. I would suggest that perhaps Greenaway's film is more like an attempt to simulate it.

The Cook, the Thief is a difficult and confronting text, and as such, needs to be consumed perhaps in small morsels. Chewed, savoured and slowly digested, even if, for some, it is finally expelled or rejected, valorised or ignored. Savour slowly, and watch the tummy - beware the 'gut reaction' - approach with caution from multiple perspectives. It is more readily digested if actively read as a postmodern text which problematizes liberal humanist modes of criticism. Not always an easy film to watch, but one worth attention, analysis, and active critical engagement. As a study in transgression, it contests borders, limits, and eludes interpretive finitude. Beyond the beautiful and the sublime, a simulacrum of abjection.

Many thanks to Noel King and Lesley Stern for their comments and suggestions on an earlier version of this essay.


1. Statement delivered by Lacan at an address given at MIT quoted in S. Turkle, Psychoanalytic Politics: Freud's French Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1978), p.238.

2. Jacques Derrida, "Economimesis", Diacritics, v. 11 (June 1981), p.24.

3. Richard Neville, "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and the old Hippy", Sydney Morning Herald, June 2, 1990, p.75.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Meaghan Morris, "Indigestion: A Rhetoric of Reviewing" in The Pirate's Fiancee (London: Verso, 1988), p.105.

7. Terry Eagleton, The Subject of Literature", Cultural Critique, v.2 (1985/86), p.100.

8. Christopher Norris & Andrew Benjamin, What is Deconstruction? (New York: Academy Edition/St. Martin's Press, 1988), p.17.

9. Ibid, p.18.

10. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", Screen, 16:3 (Autumn 1975), pp.6-18.

11. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), pp.282-83.

12. Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics (London: Methuen, 1977), p.52.

13. Jean-Francois Lyotard, "Judiciousness in Dispute or, Kant after Marx", in Andrew Benjamin ed., The Lyotard Reader (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), p.55.

14. John Sampson, "Feast of Fiends", Tension n.20, April 1990, p.18.

15. Elizabeth Grosz, "Language and the Limits of the Body" in Futur*Fall: Excursions into Post-Modernity (Sydney: Power Foundation 1987), p.109.

16. Derrida, "Economimesis", p.16.

17. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Conmdtion: A Report on Knowledge, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984).

18. Quoted in John Lechte, Julia Kristeva (London: Routledge, 1990), p.95.

19. Georges Bataille, "The Notion of Expenditure", in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, trans. Allan Stoekl, with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, second printing, 1986), pp.116-29.

20. Ibid, p.118.

21. Ibid, p.120.

22. See, for example, Bataille, Erotism, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), Chapter V.

23. Ibid, p.76-7.

24. Lechte, p.74.

25. See, for example, Elizabeth Grosz, "Notes Towards a Corporeal Feminism", in Australian Feminist Studies, n.5 (Summer, 1987), pp.1-16.

26. Stephen Heath, "Difference", Screen, v.19, n.4 (Winter 1978-9), p.53.

27. John Sutton, "Where was Thought? Notes towards a Genealogy of Mind", in Hermes, v. 6 (1990), p.101.

28. Gamini Salgado (ed), Three Jacobean Revenge Tragedies (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), p.20.

29. Ibid, p.20.

30. Peter Brook, The Shifting Point (London: Metheun, 1988), p.44.

31. Antonin Artaud, "Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society" (1947), in Susan Sontag (ed.), Selected Writings (New York: Farrar, Straus and Girroux, 1976), p.490.

32. Here, the Lacanian notion of the subject being constituted through language is opposed to Foucault's account of the creation of particular kinds of subjects by the techniques of power which identify and co-ordinate certain kinds of bodily gesture, discourse and desire. See, for example, Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, (London: Tavistock, 1977); and Foucault, Power/Knowledge, C.Gordon (ed.) (Brighton, Harvester, 1980).

33. Compare Elizabeth Grosz's account of human biology being "always already cultural...It is thus a threshold term between nature and culture, being both natural and cultural." She notes the importance of monist understandings of corporeality and subjectivity proposed by theorists like Nietzsche, Foucault, and Deleuze, but also points out that "with very rare exceptions, these male theorists are blind to or silent about the implications of acknowledging the sexual specificity of different bodies. Each in his own way cannot acknowledge the masculinity, the phallocentrism, of his own position." Grosz, "Notes towards a Corporeal Feminism", pp.7-9.

34. Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 1988), p.199.

35. Ibid, p.199.

36. Ibid, p.211.

37. Ibid, p..211.

38. Elizabeth Grosz, "Language and the Limits of the Body", p.108.

39. Ibid, p.108.

40. Ibid, p.110.

41. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p.3.

42. Quoted in J. Rose, p.182.

43. See, for example, Grosz, "Language and the Limits of the Body: Kristeva and Abjection'; and "Notes Towards a Corporeal Feminism" for discussions of the formation of a 'clean and proper body' - expulsion of the abject - as a necessary condition of and continual threat to subjectivity and insertion into the Symbolic order.

44. Grosz, "Language and the Limits of the Body", p.112.

New: 27 November, 1995 | Now: 21 March, 2015