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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
1990 - NC-17 - 124 Mins.
Director: Peter Greenaway
Producer: Kees Kasander
Written By: Peter Greenaway
Starring: Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard and Tim Roth
Review by: Bill King
My list of greatest films is, of course, one of personal preference, but if I were to say that "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" ranks second on that list, I'd probably get a lot of puzzled looks, not because of the quality of the choice, but for its obscurity. Few people know of its existence, despite the fact that it created much controversy during its initial release in 1989 and 1990. It was granted an X by the MPAA before being released unrated (and eventually certified NC-17). All of that is long in the past, but the film's power has not withered at all. It is still a movie of great artistic merit, one that can be endlessly argued over by people who believe that and those who don't.

Peter Greenaway's film is one that hits hard from the start and rarely lets up. Right from the beginning, we're exposed to brutality and savagery, as we watch hungry dogs feasting on raw meat outside the extravagant Le Hollandaise restaurant. What a restaurant this is. Its design is remarkably opulent with its grand dining room and kitchen that looks like something out of the middle ages. Inside its doors, a nightly parade of greed, lust and gluttony is the norm. The thief is Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), a thuggish fellow who mouths off obscenities in all directions. He moves smoothly from one topic to another, offering more than his two cents of reasoning. He is the owner of Le Hollandaise, but he doesn't worry that his attitude might lose customers. In fact, the diners look like regulars who are willing to pay the price of being within earshot of Michael just to enjoy the fine food.

His long-suffering cook is Richard (Richard Bohringer), who is paid very well to provide fantastic meals with fancy names I've never heard of. He appears tired of Albert's ego, but he presses forward nonetheless. When Albert presents new silverware to be placed on all the tables, Richard breaks them in half and informs him that they're generic, but Richard appears distracted, perhaps bewildered by Albert's compulsion to buy them in the first place. Albert's wife is Georgina (Helen Mirren). She puts up with Albert's company probably because she gets great meals, but she doesn't want to be with him. Near the beginning of the movie, Albert abuses a waiter while Georgina urges him to stop so they can eat.

Every night, Albert and his associates sit around a big table, while Albert does almost all the talking, dominating the conversation, speaking in high volumes and otherwise acting prudish. Georgina spots Michael (Alan Howard) across the dining room. Their eyes meet, and after minimal hesitation, they quickly head to the ladies' room for a quickie. Then, night after night, Georgina and Michael make love in various parts of the kitchen. Albert doesn't notice their deed since he's too busy entertaining his associates.

The movie is a series of meetings between Michael and Georgina, interrupted by Albert's conversations. Even the cook gets in on the action. He provides the hiding places so that the wife and her lover can meet, and he warns them when the thief gets too close. The four characters then spin an intriguing web of deceit, betrayal and lust. Albert begins to wonder what Georgina is up to, Richard hides the truth and Georgina and Michael continue to meet right in Albert's restaurant. All of this, and I still haven't mentioned the film's excesses.

"The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" is notorious for its adult content. Not for the squeamish, the film contains lots of repugnant images, such as the opening scene. There is also a moment when Georgina and Michael hide in a refrigerated meat truck, and are surrounded by bloody raw meat, disemboweled bodies and hanging pig heads. Then there is Albert's methods of abuse. He doesn't care who he hurts, so long as it serves his purpose. In the men's room, he yells at guests for being there. In the ladies' room, he kicks downs stall doors while looking for Georgina. Frequent nudity, bloody violence and an unforgettable ending combine to give the film its standing as one of the most controversial films ever made.

What does it all mean? We see the cook, the thief, his wife and her lover interact. We observe how stylistic the movie is. Greenaway's camera often moves left and right for long distances, recording the bustling activity taking place before it. Certainly the film is skillfully made, but is this simply a movie about four characters and their actions, or is there something deeper? Maybe there is. I've read about the film's political meanings, but I won't discuss that here because that's not what I get from watching this movie. Instead, what I see is a film unafraid to show us the extent to which these characters will go to fulfill their wishes. I see a film with lavish sets, and a camera that wants to photograph as much as possible. I see a film that is enhanced by its look. Once characters step into Le Hollandaise, it's like they enter a realm where the surreal takes over. Green is a dominant color in the kitchen, red in the dining room and white in the restrooms. The clothes that people wear change color to match the room as they walk from one place to another.

The acting here is superb. Michael Gambon as Albert gives us one of cinema's most brutal villains. He sneers, abuses, degrades, but does so while presenting himself as sophisticated and proper. He encourages good table manners, no smoking in the kitchen, luxurious wardrobes and talented hairdressers. Richard Bohringer gives a solid performance as the cook. He hides frustration well, by addressing Albert with respect ("Monsieur Spica..."). He takes his trade seriously. He prides himself on good service and delicious meals. Helen Mirren is courageous as Georgina. She is the object of Albert's torment and admiration. When she's around him, she gives off an aura of detachment and amusement. She is shackled by this marriage, but sees the ridiculous nature of Albert's antics. Finally, there is Alan Howard, playing the lover. For much of the film's first scenes, he remains quiet and distanced, moving in when he sees the opportunity. Once he opens up, we see that he is probably the most ordinary of the four characters, which isn't saying a whole lot since he's willing to make love to Georgina while surrounded by dead ducks and floating feathers.

The entire movie feels large. Everything from the enormous restaurant to the massive book depository where Michael keeps his collection. The characters appear like small players in the midst of the architecture, yet their actions grab our attention like a hook. The music, composed by Michael Nyman, is appropriately grand and horrific. It's like the characters are aware of soundtrack's presence. They move with it, and are sometimes frightened by it. It also sounds great. The music chimes in at all the appropriate places, and while there are only a few scores to be found, it nonetheless never gets old. It's part of the action. As the movie winds down with its shocker of a conclusion, the soundtrack is integral in bringing forth the horror of what Albert must do.

"The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" is horrific, funny, shocking and mesmerizing. I love the dazzling camerawork, the brilliant acting, the soundtrack, the juicy dialogue and Peter Greenaway's nerve to pull something like this off. The movie is an absolute triumph of style and substance.

NOTE: Do not see the R-rated version of this film. It is missing nearly 30 minutes of footage, is completely watered down and lacks coherency. See the NC-17 version.
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

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