The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (France/United Kingdom, 1989)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

If there's anything disgusting or grotesque that The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover doesn't dabble in, I'm at a loss to figure out what it is. This film, a wildly exuberant, bitingly satirical examination of excess, bad taste, and great acting, is the kind of over-the-top experience that will have timid movie-goers running (not just walking) for the exits. Taboos? If director Peter Greenaway has any, you can't tell by this film.

Common wisdom suggests that you don't go into films like Babette's Feast and Eat Drink Man Woman on an empty stomach. By the same token, my recommendation would be that you don't venture into The Cook on a full stomach. There are times when Greenaway's vision becomes excessively graphic, and this goes beyond just sex and violence (although there's a fair amount of both). Perhaps the most disgusting sequences involve trucks of meat and fish left outside to rot. The word "gross" was coined for this kind of stuff.

Roughly two-thirds of the film takes place inside the fine French restaurant, Le Hollandais. With a dungeon-like kitchen that looks like it was snatched out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, this is a fantastically bizarre place to eat dinner. The chef, Richard (French actor Richard Bohringer), is a gastronomical genius who cares as much for the artistry of a meal as for its taste. Le Hollandais' owner, an uncouth rogue by the name of Albert (Michael Gambon), visits the restaurant nightly in the company of his wife, Georgina (Helen Mirren), and a flock of toadies. There, sitting in the center of Le Hollandais' dining room, at the biggest table, Albert holds court, spouting often-absurd discourses about any subject he can think of. But, while he's talking, his neglected wife catches the eye of a nearby diner (Alan Howard), and soon those two sneak away for a tryst in the Ladies' Room.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is well-written, with dark humor and irony peppering nearly every conversation and monologue. More than half of the lines belong to Michael Gambon (of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective), and he delivers them with relish. His is a wonderful, larger-than-life performance, and he knows just how to present Greenaway's dialogue to its best effect. Watching Gambon's tour de force is one of The Cook's chief pleasures.

Helen Mirren, a British actress of some repute (best known for her portrayal of Jane Tennison in the Prime Suspect series), has never been sexier than here. Her performance is proof that a female lead doesn't have to be under 40 or classically beautiful to heat up the screen. Mirren's lovemaking scenes with Alan Howard are charged with eroticism, and her final confrontation with Gambon is tense and bitter.

Set design is top notch. Le Hollandais is a surreal place, the kind of fantastic setting that Jeunet and Caro would bring to the screen years later in films like Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. This is also a movie of vivid colors: reds for the dining room, pinks for the rest rooms, and greens for the kitchen. The Cook is always visually interesting, even on those rare occasions when other aspects of the production aren't as arresting.

One message that Greenaway clearly conveys is the association between two of life's most obvious sensual pleasures: eating and sex. He litters this picture with the brutal and the grotesque -- including murder, covering someone with excrement, and cannibalism. The Cook is always as visceral as it is visual, with Gambon on hand to provide acid commentary for everything (he never seems to stop talking). Then there's the ending, which contradicts the saying that revenge is a dish best served cold. In this case, it's warm, and very, very appropriate.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (France/United Kingdom, 1989)

Director: Peter Greenaway
Cast: Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard, Tim Roth, Ciaran Hinds, Liz Smith
Screenplay: Peter Greenaway
Cinematography: Sacha Vierny
Music: Michael Nyman
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Ranked #100 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NC-17" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1