The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Director: Peter Greenaway
Genre: Drama, Black Comedy
Synopsis: The wife of a criminal restaurant owner, Georgina Spica (Helen Mirren) finds solace from her sadistic brute of a husband (Michael Gambon) in the arms of her lover (Alan Howard) with the help of the head cook (Richard Bohringer).
Overview: One of the most exquisitely designed films I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing begins with a man being smeared in shit. Set to an inescapable and memorable score by Michael Nyman, Peter Greenaway’s 1989 feature is a refined exercise in vulgarity. It’s highbrow in its cinematic approach and acting talents, and lowbrow in its humor (if it can be called that) and overall plot. Greenaway plays up this contrast by setting most of the film within a classy French restaurant where Albert Spica and his goons, dressed to the nines, try to create the illusion of high society while making toilet jokes and crude sexual remarks. The film is a prime example of Edmund Burke’s notions of the sublime in that it is painful and pleasurable to watch. The film’s beauty could not be appreciated without the ugliness, both are completely captivating.
The entire film looks like a stage production; it even opens and closes with curtains. Everything looks constructed, purposefully designed, positioned, and bursting with detail. Color is a means for symbolism instead of realism. The entire dining room, and most of its patrons are awash in red, a constant state of passion and blood. The kitchen, cast in heavy shadows, gives off the green glow of jealousy and secrets. Details of the characters’ costumes change color as they move between rooms, reflecting their emotional states. It’s really some of the most original set design committed to film. The camera is most often kept at a distance, creating a wide view as if we are staring at a painting or a performance. Greenaway, production designers Ben van Os and Jan Roelfs, cinematographer Sacha Vierny, and costume designer Jean-Paul Gaultier all should have been nominated and won Oscars for their work on this film. The film is Kubrickian in its attention to detail and overall artistry, and I would never make a comparison to the master lightly.
The film’s plodding and deliberate pace may annoy some. The film’s interest is clearly style over substance, but that’s not to say the characters and plot aren’t interesting. They are, but neither will leave you with much to analyze afterwards. Albert Spica (whose name must surely be a play on despicable) is nauseatingly vile, and nearly every line out of his mouth earns the film its NC-17 rating. It’s a tremendous performance from Michael Gambon, and those who only know his work as Dumbledore may be in for quite a shock. Helen Mirren gives off a cool sexuality and quietly burning hatred in her performance as Georgina. While she spends a good portion of the film engaged in sex scenes with Alan Howard’s Michael, her struggle to get away from Albert gives the film a strong emotional foundation. For all of the savagery, vile remarks, and fascination with orifices, it’s a film rooted in a woman’s pain and struggle to free herself. This in turn leads to a revenge that’s one of the greatest and most sadistic endings of all time. I implore you not to look it up and simply watch the film. Trust me when I tell you, it’s imagery that’ll stay with you for a long time to come.
Like a twisted love story torn from the pages of Edgar Allen Poe and the most lurid of sex tales, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is the cinematic equivalent of shitting where you eat, and against all odds it manages to be a near masterpiece because of it.