«I’ll kill him and I’ll eat him!»: Peter Greenaway and the cinematic Trauerspiel
AbstractThe career of British director Peter Greenaway, now more than four decades long, has often been animated by a profound interest in what one may call the aesthetics of death. This is particularly true for his 80s and 90s films, which explore a wide array of strategies for the staging and ritualization of death. In The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & Her Lover (1989), for the first time, this interest takes Greenaway into the territories of the tragic.I propose to rethink the fundamental relationship that Greenaway’s film entertains with the narrative and aesthetic forms of the tragic. More precisely, I suggest to interpret The Cook in the light of the reflections on the Trauerspiel (mourning-play) that Walter Benjamin elaborates in The Origin of German Tragic Drama [Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels]. After giving a short account of the first macro-section of Benjamin’s essay, I will argue that the opposition between the Thief and the Lover mirrors the Trauerspiel’s opposition between Tyrant and Martyr, that Benjamin regards as one of the conceptual cores of this theatrical form. This, in turn, reflects the presence in the film of a more abstract conflict between two systems for the construction of knowledge and experience. By drawing on Benjamin’s study, I will trace this conflict back to the opposition between nature and books in baroque culture.The battle between the Thief/Tyrant and the Lover/Martyr takes the form of a succession of rites and counter-rites for the (un)making of social bonds, and the film constructs these rites by clearly referring to the Christian imagination and its subversion. I will contend that the motif of the subversion of the Holy Communion can provide us with a unifying key for the interpretation of the film. From a semiotic perspective, this manipulation consists in the substitution of what our culture constructs as food with its dysphoric counterparts: decay, excrement, and human flesh.
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