The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

“In the next film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, the child figure is… sadly – completely emancipated at fourteen”

– Peter Greenaway, Fear Of Drowning By Numbers


Pup is clad in a tunic, somewhere between a chef and a choirboy’s attire – and with his white-blonde hair, there is a saint-like quality to him.  He sings the words from: “Psalm 50, 51… the self-castigating psalm… music for Ash Wednesday”.  And singing with his back to the other characters – towards an imaginary audience, provides his song with a similar dramatic effect to a Shakespearean aside or soliloquy.  His voice is high-pitched and brittle, and his words: “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean.  Wash me, wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” are perhaps a private plea to replenish the lost ‘innocence’ of childhood.  In the midst of kitchen cacophony – created by adults, the sound he produces is apparent, raw; it is different in pitch and naked.  The lone voice of a child – just as in reality, he is alone with no one to look after him, no ally to console him during the violence that takes places at the restaurant.  The lyrics to his song are peculiarly masochistic – a sad reflection that his position as a minor has made him an ideal scapegoat?

“Scapegoating is the tendency to assign fault and bad intentions to one family member (the ‘black sheep’) whose function is to carry projected ‘bad’ aspects of other family members”.

Pup is ‘innocent’ – has not created any injury to anyone, yet he portends to sing for the other characters’ sins.

Albert Spica – the thief and dubious ‘owner’ of the restaurant – who, in “an attempt to assume a higher social status, frequents the cook’s elegant restaurant”, is the likely candidate who uses Pup as a scapegoat – perhaps detesting the fact that he is a child because it reminds him of his own sterile marriage to Georgina, a secret embarrassment to his prowess as a male: “Albert… wasn’t really interested in sex – not with me – not with women”.

Albert threatens to stain Pup’s ‘innocence’ by forcing Georgina to “educate” him with sex, in an effort to make Pup less of a saintly child and more of a man: “I was a choirboy once.  Women like choirboys.  I was almost a choirboy when I met Georgie.  Then she spoilt it all… come on, Georgie, show the little boy what you showed me”.  It seems likely that in a peculiar way, Albert wants Pup and himself to exist on a similar level and to eradicate the humiliation he feels concerning his sexuality.

Albert’s own sexual behaviour is almost childlike – as illustrated when Georgina tells her dead lover of Albert’s suitcase filled with sex toys.  These ‘toys’ include a plastic train and a wooden spoon, and are prompt memories of children playing ‘Doctors And Nurses’ – using any object they might find as a substitute penis.  In addition to this, Albert’s sexual needs are infantile – stemming from a baby’s erotic enjoyment of toilet training: “After we had got home from that restaurant, I had to get a hot, wet flannel and accompany him to the toilet – he’d make me wipe… and then I’d have to wash the flannel out again”.  Albert is obviously horrified by these instincts, and attempts to project the suppression of ‘childishness’ onto Pup.

Pup is in full song until the arrival of Albert and Georgina.  His voice trails off as they approach him – ebbing into an echo; reminiscent of a church with its vast, resonating space.  Purity and religion, in contrast to the surrounding cannibalistic world – unless Christianity is seen as cannibalistic here, the eating of Christ’s ‘body’, the drinking of his ‘blood’ – an idea very much central to The Baby Of Macon.

As Albert approaches him, Pup asks if he would like a song.  Perhaps Pup feels that his singing will pacify the situation, just like his predecessor – Shakespeare’s fool.  Yet when Pup’s voice falters, becomes choked with fear, Albert jeers: “Pity.  Can’t keep it up, can you boy?” his mockery making Pup the object of impotence, the scapegoat for his own flaccid penis.  Albert stands Pup on a chair to recite his song – another condescending gesture, illustrating their difference in size, with Pup having to perch on a chair in order to be on Albert’s physical level.  It is also an act of exposure and ridicule; a reference to the hanged man – a premonition to Pup’s later torture where he is forced onto higher ground.

Georgina and Michael – her lover, hide from Albert at a book depository.  Pup brings them food which – in this context, conveys a completely different meaning.  Eating at the restaurant is associated with brutality – with Albert force-feeding his ‘friends’ until they vomit, along with his references to famous dictators eating shellfish: “What did Julius Caesar like?  Or Hitler?  Hitler liked clams.  And Mussolini liked squid”.  In opposition to this, the situation at the book depository is one of tranquility – and here, food depicts peace, warmth and satisfaction.  There is however, an element of sadness – as Pup, like Beta in A Zed & Two Noughts, bears the role of nurturer, yet who is there to nurture him?

Pup even stutters as he speaks to Georgina and Michael, and he attempts to sing – perhaps he considers all adults to be temperamental, and expect him to ease the tension with his song.  There is no one for him.  When Georgina visits him in hospital, the atmosphere is bleak, one of loneliness – and in its midst, Pup has the air of a sick saint.  His ‘innocence’ has made him a victim – at the mercy of others, which perhaps his name suggests.  ‘Pup’ is reminiscent of ‘puppet’, which is appropriate because, much like Augustus in The Draughtsman’s Contract, Pup is also manipulated by adults.  Conversely, his name could be representative of a small, dependent animal, a kitten or a puppy – accentuating Pup’s helplessness, all the more poignant in a world where he cannot trust the adults that surround him.

On his return to the restaurant from the book depository, there is a sense that Pup has – in fact, martyred himself in bringing Georgina and Michael nourishment – only to be tortured by Albert and his “associates”.  Buttons are thrust into the young boy’s throat, until the sole remaining button is his belly button – which is severed; “finally cutting him off from all childhood connections”.  A final push into the violence of adulthood.