The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover Review
by Joshua Handler
1989, 124 minutes
This review is part of a series of extreme, but highly recommended pieces of cinema that I believe are either essential or interesting.
Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a masterpiece. It is one of those films that will leave you laughing, gasping, and puking all at once, and is one of my personal favorite films. It follows a disgusting, vile man, Albert Spica (Michael Gambon in a career-best performance), who opens a restaurant. Every night, he makes a fool of himself and abuses everyone around him, especially his quiet and kind wife, Georgina (Helen Mirren). However, when Georgina begins an affair with a customer in the restaurant (Alan Howard), things get "slightly" out-of-hand.
Many have said that this movie is an allegory for Margaret Thatcher's England. This has never officially been stated by the filmmakers, but it is certainly plausible. And, it is definitely not a flattering portrait of that period. The character of Spica is used as a Thatcher-like character who benefits at everyone else's expense, particularly his "friends" and the kitchen staff (most likely representing the working class). This is one scathing and sly allegory that is even more smart because it is never painfully obvious and hardly shows anything outside of the restaurant indicating that this film could take place anytime, anyplace.
I really love this film for so many reasons other than the allegorical aspect. It is not cute or cuddly like many other traditional "favorite" films. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a crazy experience, and I love it all the more because of that. The acting by the entire cast is superb. Michael Gambon is obviously the stand-out because he has such a robust character to play and has such a monstrous presence on the screen. Mirren is great as his counterpart as she is reserved, polite, and pleasant. To watch the two of them together is very entertaining and never less than completely believable.
The camerawork of this film is truly amazing. The tracking shots following the characters moving around the restaurant and through the different doors between the rooms are interesting because they give the film a very smooth feel. Everything in it is very stylized from the cinematography down to the characters.
The set design is a marvel using bright, vivid colors. The main dining room is covered in red and classic-style paintings, giving the film a lush feel. Michael Nyman's pounding score is crucial to the atmosphere of the film lending a classical feel to match the scenery. It makes the film feel like a renowned, old play. Without one of the aesthetic elements, whether it be the score, scenery, or cinematography, the film would not be the same. You will see what I mean when you view this film.
Finally, I will discuss what has earned this film an NC-17 rating and a lot of controversy. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover has numerous fairly graphic sex scenes and many other scenes featuring disturbing violence. I will not elaborate on the violence as it is all essential to the movie, and if I discuss it, I would spoil it. What I can say is this: it is some of the most disturbing, absurd, and nauseating violence (the finale epitomizes the word "nauseating") put on film and should be viewed at your own risk.
Overall, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, is simply a very unique, clever, and rich film that is entertaining and disturbing at the same time. It is one of the more extreme art-house films out there, but is all the better for it. The extremities are what make the film unique and are what give it much of its power.