Double feature: On the plus side, a double feature of “Mysteries of Lisbon” and “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” allows for an instructive exploration of narrative framing and visual spectatorship. On the minus side, these two films make such opposing demands on your constitution that watching them together may leave your nervous system shot.
“Mysteries of Lisbon” unfolds its stories with delicacy, verbally and visually shielding us from the darker details of its characters’ adventures. Keeping its rabbit-hole narratives straight and catching its subtle clues requires patience and an acute attunement of the senses.
Whereas “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” requires, above all, a strong stomach. It chooses to imagine grotesque acts of cruelty, then bluntly depicts them with unstinting relish, unsparing showmanship.
In spite of these “physiological” differences, the two films share a preoccupation with, and meta-awareness of, watching and being watched. Both films draw attention to multiple observers of their protagonists – panning to unnamed servants at doorways and windows, pointing to the spaces where never-shown spectators clearly lurk – to keep us conscious of our own position as viewers.
Both films use staging conceits to directly acknowledge the inherent artificiality of storytelling: for 19th-century set “Mysteries of Lisbon,” miniature scenes in a paper theater; for the more contemporary “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover,” soundstage-like interior settings and appropriations of painterly tableaus.
The stories of both films have been told before and will likely be repeated. What makes them unique is the self-consciousness and referentiality of their representation.
For a marathon: “Mysteries of Lisbon”’s nested stories are paralleled in the bracketed narrative structure of “Wuthering Heights,” which also echoes “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover”’s appetite for cruelty and vengeance. Good luck finding a filmic adaptation as satisfying as the book.
(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “TheDeliciousLife” and “agrilifetoday” at Flickr)