Unconventional and irreverent in the way he brought popular culture and punk onto the haute couture catwalk, Jean Paul Gaultier brought the same raw energy to movie costume design. His 1989 collaboration with Brit auteur and bird of a feather Peter Greenaway was the extravagant, controversial and visually iconic The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover – a politically charged collision of the worlds of high and low.
The film is set in a high-class French restaurant, Le Hollandais. Occupying the main table every evening is Brit gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gabon), who has taken over the restaurant and dines there with his long-suffering spouse Georgina (Helen Mirren) and retinue of thugs. Oafish, cruel and vulgar, this criminal routinely humiliates his wife and subjects the diners and staff to violent outbursts of temper in a reign of terror, while aping refined tastes by gobbling down cuisine and stumbling over French menu phrases. When Georgina embarks on trysts of impassioned sex with book dealer Michael, who sits alone every night at the table opposite reading, her prolonged trips to the loos make her husband increasingly suspicious.
The whole Le Hollandais establishment is a spectacle of excess. The camera pans across its majestic space as if it were a vast canvas. A giant 17th-century Dutch Masters painting hanging on the wall of officers in ruffs at a banquet seems to spill into the deep scarlet dining hall, its colours and clothes echoed by the restaurant and its clientele. Even the wait staff are lavishly adorned, from their cutlery-shaped buttons to their gauntlets, with intellectual Michael’s muted brown suit the only aesthetically modest note.
The stately opulence and cultured cosmopolitanism jars with the nightly goings-on. Georgina's outfits are glamorously covetable markers of status, but have been shaped with brutal bodily strictures, sex and death in mind, fitting her contradictions: ostrich-feathered hats, bodysuits and dresses panelled into cages of bondage-style straps, boots, tight-fitting forms that grip like corsetry, transparent lingerie, stockings and tightly furled, slicked hair – with whites and reds against black, and more black. Spica, himself in slick scarlet and black ensembles, declares that he offers Georgina “quality and protection”, and forces her to repeat at the table that she spends £400 per week on clothing and eats the finest cuisine. But as her very style reveals her consumerist lifestyle is as much a prison as a pleasure, encased in raw vulgarity and abuse. Spica's torture methods – forcing the soprano kitchen-boy to swallow buttons, for instance – are a form of elaborate performance to enforce his power through spectacle that grossly parody high fashion’s excess status displays. Meanwhile, Georgina takes to ingenious methods of dressing that make her flesh quickly accessible in her brief trysts with her lover, as the cook helps them hide in the kitchen’s prodigiously stocked recesses.
In one of the film's radically surreal aesthetic flourishes, Georgina's outfits change colour to blend with whatever room she's in - white for the bathrooms, green for the labyrinthine kitchen - in monochrome compositions akin to camouflage through fashion. After being beaten by her husband, she sits at the table with crimson bruises, an alarming adjunct to her impeccable red lipstick and black-strapped dress. Greenaway said in a 1990 interview with Brian McFarlane: “There is a medieval-like feeling in The Cook, the Thief about this rotten, worm-infested body which is covered in an extraordinary gloss of elaborate clothing, feathered hats and that sort of thing. It is as though there is an attempt to try and hide the horror, the despair, the sense of violence and lust that’s contained only just underneath.”
The violently angry rebellion that pulses through The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover says much of the England it was made in. Meant by Greenaway as a scathing satire on the greed that was laying waste to the nation, it’s part of that cherished ‘80s tradition of Thatcher-bashing that also brought us Morrissey’s song “Margaret on the Guillotine”. The film came out amid the rage surrounding the Poll Tax, which introduced flat-rate taxation, with Spica the Thief representing a predatory state of vulgar gluttony. Making clear that his restaurant is a realm of commodity fetishism far removed from mere survival, the chef muses that the most expensive foods – black-hued caviar, and diet fad fare – are associated with death or vanity. In 1984, Gaultier had made a brutally subversive collection of clothes designed to look too tight, called "You Feel As Though You've Eaten Too Much". What designer to make the costumes for this film, but him?
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover will be showing at the Barbican 29 May