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Written by Christopher Beaubien • July 06, 2008 • Start the Discussion!

Served Scolding, Heavily Trysted, and Blood-Thirsty!

This sumptuously lurid play, by Peter Greenaway, on depravity, sexual oblivion, and Jacobian revenge remains the most accessible and compelling in his filmography. It is also one of the few films I hold closest to my heart. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) is simultaneously simple and deceptive beginning with the film’s title. The main characters could stand for an angry allegory about greedy Thatcher-inspired bullies exploiting the working class citizens of Britain. Then again, perhaps this tale of excess, rape, and cannibalism is a heightened account about deeply wounded souls.

Le Hollandaise is a grotesquely bourgeois restaurant where the thief Albert Spica (Michael Gambon, Gosford Park, 2001), his wife Georgina (the indispensable Helen Mirren, Gosford Park and Last Orders, 2001), and his goons (Tim Roth and Ciarán Hinds) dine every night. We are introduced to Albert as he force-feeds a lowly member of the kitchen staff owing money his excrement, and elaborating on its value: “I eat the very best and that’s expensive!”

The cook, Richard Borst (Richard Bohringer, Diva, 1981) stands up to the thief’s boorish threats concerning his offered “protection” with a collected reserve that masks deep rage – “If you button your expensive jacket, Mister Spica, you feel less…empty inside, Mister Spica.” Seated in the center of the operatic dining room, Albert’s hostility extends toward everyone around him, including the patrons. Georgina, who Albert crudely dubs, “Georgie”, often berated and beaten by her husband, is quietly defiant. She makes eye contact with Michael, a quiet intellectual (Alan Howard, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003) as he eats and reads in the corner. Their infatuation leads to many excuses for a rendezvous in the opulent lavatory, where she and tender, love-handled Michael make desperate, explicit love as a means of escape.

Their sexual escapades take them behind closed doors in the kitchen, a secret quietly kept by the restaurant’s workers. Albert, obvious to being a cuckold, continues displaying his virtuoso nastiness with loud, arrogant (and darkly hilarious) commentary punctuated by violence: “I think Ethiopians like starving!” and “Human milk should be considered a delicacy.” Everyone around him is reduced to frightened submission. One night, he invites Michael to his table where he picks on his reading habits, “Does this stuff make money?” After having badly-bruised Georgina dictate how wonderful her life is (“Tell Michael you live in a big house and you spend a thousand pounds a week on clothes!”), she retaliates with news about her gynecology appointments (“Being infertile makes me a safe bet for a good screw.”) Albert drags her across the parking lot for that one.

The thief eventually discovers his wife’s deception is consumed by jealous rage. Searching for them, he invades the ladies’ lavatory and trashes the kitchen while screaming under satanic lighting, “I’ll kill him and then I’ll eat him!” Georgina, having been pushed beyond all measure, is transformed from tragic victim to arresting seducer, to tortured lunatic, and finally to avenging mastermind. There’s much to savor when the cook offers to prepare Georgina’s proposed meal for her husband. Albert’s comeuppance is satisfying and extreme, though perhaps not excruciating enough.

Every actor performs excellently with their given roles. In particular, Michael Gambon’s portrayal of the thief remains one of the most criminally overlooked performances of a great villain. He could stand alongside the likes of Hannibal Lector; after all, they have some things in common. Helen Mirren and Alan Howard exhibit astonishing bravery and tact in playing nude and suggesting real human depth with roles that might not initially suggest.

Sacha Vierny’s fantastical and painterly cinematography captures a surreal and heighten reality. The nightmarish sets include a large dining space saturated with blood red walls, furnishings and dominating curtains along with the towering, sickly-green industrial kitchen. The panoramic widescreen capitalizes on the vast stage-like compositions, panning from the parking lot, the kitchen, and the dining room in one deceptively continuous take. The color of the characters’ clothing changes to match the given settings. Costume designer Jean-Paul Gaultier fuses seventeenth century sensibilities along with warped contemporary ones. The unreality of the film’s look utilizes the melodramatic and farcical elements of the story. There are visual quotations of the painting The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia of Haarlem (1616) by Frans Hals as though the oily aristocracy are staring at their more uncouth counterparts centuries later.

Michael Nyman’s thunderous music suggests decadence and savagery. Hellish chorus howls, shrieking violins, and saxophones dominate the exceptional soundtrack. Rarely have saxophones sounded like they have slobbery, wet tongues inside.

cook4When released in 1990, the film was given the NC-17 rating that rallied a demand for a working adults-only rating reserved for more serious and sophisticated films. Helen Mirren spoke up against the ludicrousness of the MPAA ratings system. After eighteen years, it is still an uphill battle against maddeningly vague, studio-influenced hypocrites who keep films like this from the mainstream cinema. Peter Greenaway, who began his career as a serious painter and a student of anatomy, is uninhibited about regarding the naked human form of both sexes before the camera. Written with exacting intelligence and perversion, Greenaway’s portrayal of violence and sexuality is a conscious indictment of it. The extremity of the film is not without merit or thought, as it is not for the faint of heart. Order wisely from the menu, this is uncompromised satire of the highest order.


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