Peter Greenaway, 1989
Starring: Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Richard Bohringer, Alan Howard, Tim Roth
My love for Peter Greenaway knows few bounds. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, though quite a mouthful (pun intended), is his most popular film and comes highly recommended. Film fans tend to either love or hate Greenaway, as he can be a bit pretentious and nonsensical, but that doesn't bother me. This film is sad, violent, disgusting, funny, sexy, and visually beautiful. I'm not really sure why this is his most popular, but it is definitely among his best work, next to Draughtsman's Contract and Zed and Two Noughts. Some reviewers discuss that it is his most approachable film, but I'm not entirely sure about that.
Helen Mirren, surely one of the hottest women on the planet, is wonderful as Georgina (the wife), a classy lady who prefers to spend her time reading and dining in upscale restaurants. Unfortunately she has to put up with her husband, Michael Gambon's Albert (the thief). He is perverse, violent, controlling, insanely jealous and has delusions of sophistication. When he isn't abusing Georgina or terrorizing innocent people, he gathers his gang together to dine in Le Hollandais, the fancy restaurant owned by the french cook, Richard. At Le Hollandais, Georgina locks eyes with Michael, a lone diner who always has a stack of books with him while he eats. Soon they begin an affair under the protective eye of Richard, who feels sorry for Georgina and is tired of Albert's disruptive shenanigans. Unfortunately Albert discovers the affair and beats her. She leaves him, setting in motion a chain of revenge and violence.
Like all of Greenaway's works, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is challenging and will not be appreciated by most viewers. The X-rating it received upon release has made it criminally unavailable to U.S. viewers and it is currently not on region 1 DVD. Many of Greenaway's films are hard to find; I hope Zeitgeist manages to get the rites and release them all. It is available from Anchor Bay used on Amazon for an unreasonable price, but there is also a good torrent. It is really meant to be seen in a theatre or, at best, a large home screen, but take whatever you can get.
This transgressive, multi-layered film is Greenaway's treatise on digestion, indigestion and the pleasure of food and sex. It presents a carnivalesque parade of disgust, cruelty and the grotesque and is inspired by Jacobean revenge tragedies, namely Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. I realize that a lot of modern audiences aren't into reading drama, but I love revenge tragedy and highly recommend the play. It has little to do with the actual plot of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, but was obviously a major inspiration.
Some viewers might be bothered by the film's self-consciousness and meta-theatricality, but I think it is part of the charm. The visuals are astounding. It has Greenaway's normal use of montage, organization (days of the week by menu in this case) and obsession. There is incredible use of set and color, Gaultier designed costumes and cinematography by the talented Sacha Vierny. The rich visual symbolism makes Greenaway a master of arthouse cinema. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover celebrates sexuality and sensuality, while also creating a dialogue about the vulgar baseness of flesh and excess. There is a brave use of sex and nudity that is at once erotic and then revealed to be repulsive and un-erotic. Greenaway bombards us with images of food preparation, cooking, eating, overeating, stuffing and gorging. The importance of the mouth - speaking, eating, kissing, love-making - is constant. Even smoking, Georgina's main vice, is something that Albert hates and seeks to control. One gets the feeling that she smokes out of a last, feeble attempt to retain individuality or any emotional autonomy.
This is the most obviously narrative of all of Greenaway's films, character carries plot forward more than anything else. Though we hate Albert, he is sympathetic because of his absolute obsession with his wife, even while he abuses and berates her. His foul, disgusting use of language and his need to eat at Le Hollandais to prove his social class are fascinating, particularly because they are at such odds with Georgina, Michael and Richard. Georgina is an incredibly complex character and Mirren's performance makes the film worth watching. The love story, which we know has to be tragic, strikes a deep tone in the film. The chef is the weakest link and he exists mainly to support the other characters and round out the food theme.
For fear that I will babble on incessantly, I will say no more about this wonderful, difficult film that I love very much. Good luck finding it and drop me an email if you're desperate. Edit: Now you can find it streaming on Netflix!