The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
What’s it about?
Michael Gambon plays Albert Spica, a mob boss who runs a high-class restaurant named Le Hollandais. When he’s not roughing up rival restauranteurs by stripping them naked and covering them in dog shit, he’s gorging on fine cuisine with his lackeys in his own establishment and dishing out humiliations to his French chef Richard (Richard Bohringer), his customers and most of all his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren).
What he fails to notice however is that a modest bookshop owner named Michael (Alan Howard) who regularly dines at the restaurant has caught Georgina’s eye. When the latter visits the ladies’ washroom he sneaks out afterwards and seduces her. Soon their dalliances become regular sex sessions right under Albert’s nose. However, it’s only a matter of time until the overbearing hoodlum notices that something is amiss, and events start to turn towards all sorts of creative acts of violence, vengeance… and cannibalism.
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Why is it significant?
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is one of Welsh painter-turned-arthouse-film-director Peter Greenaway’s most well-regarded films. It was given 4 stars out of 4 by Roger Ebert and was rated as the best film of 1989 by Barry Norman.
How does it hold up?
“Try the cock, Albert. It’s a delicacy, and you know where it’s been.”
Widely regarded as Peter Greenaway’s most controversial and, paradoxically, most accessible film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is the very point where art meets video nasty. Those who fondly remember the more offbeat side of 1980s cinema will doubtless have mentally filed this one between Blue Velvet and Santa Sangre, while more squeamish folk who can remember that far back will probably feel their stomachs turn once again at the mere thought of its gruesome ending.
Right from the opening TCTTHW&HL (as I shall now abbreviate it to) shows off its rather blatant symbolism via a shot of some stray dogs fighting over scraps. Greenaway positively revels in this throughout as a way to establish his characters and message: a cherubic young kitchen hand sings in an angelic manner while Albert stands to his left (the position of the Devil) and Georgina stands to his right (the position of God); the colour schemes purposefully veer from the infernal red saturation of the dining room through the celestial white glow of the ladies’ washroom to the benign green of the kitchen; Albert has a palpable distaste for Richard’s love of books in a manner that would make Adolf Hitler proud. Albert is always referred to as “Mr. Spica” by Richard, but it always comes out sounding like “Mr. Speaker” - aptly enough considering he talks far more and far louder than anyone else. All of this would be as pretentious and ham-fisted as the average student polemic if it weren’t for the fact that the underlying satire here (civilised society is a thin veil for all that is rotten about the way in which capitalism is structured) is simultaneously so exquisite and yet so visceral.
Beauty and monstrosities
TCTTHW&HL is a visually beautiful affair. Much of it is deliberately shot from a side-on view which evokes both staged plays (complete with red curtains being drawn open at the start and shut at the end) and classical oil paintings (we even see one of these in the background of the dining room bearing a curious resemblance to Albert’s obnoxious entourage sat right in front of it). The camera even passes in unbroken sweeps from one room to another, further underscoring the appearance of the action taking place on a massive stage. Each day of the film’s timescale is marked by an inter-title printed out to look like a menu covered with an appetising spread of food.
However, in contrast to all of the sumptuous prettiness, we have a truly monstrous and crude figure as played by Michael Gambon cutting right through all of the artifice, his speech alternating between vile insults and references to bodily functions. Those familiar with Gambon for his plentiful recent roles typecast as various heavily-greyed patriarchs will be in for a shock here; he gives Jack Nicholson in the Shining a run for his money in the “big bad wolf” stakes. He’s hilarious and truly frightening. Likewise, the gruesome violence here is so incongruous with the art, and yet so similar to it in its intensity and stark impact, that it becomes a genuinely rude awakening to the complacent snobs who litter the chattering classes.
Greenaway intended TCTTHW&HL as a critique of the rampant consumerism of the “me first” Thatcher era. At the same time, there are deliberate leanings to unmoor the film from time and place: Albert drives an American gas guzzler of a car, and there is an allusion to the French Revolution in the end. Unfortunately, it’s even more relevant in this age where the poor are rendered expendable (see the recent furore surrounding the Grenfell Tower disaster and Universal Credit) so as to give tax cuts to the rich.
Whenever thuggery is dressed up in respectability it can get away with its brutalities. Can we acknowledge and stand up to high society’s Alberts?
Runtime: 124 mins
Dir: Peter Greenaway
Script: Peter Greenaway
Starring: Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard, Tim Roth, Ciaran Hinds