I went into Peter Greenaway's "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" with blinders on. I had absolutely no idea what to expect as the movie started, none whatsoever. I slightly suspected the director made "art" films due to a faint recollection of a discussion I saw on a bulletin board years ago, but that was all I could remember. Heck, I thought Uma Thurman was in this film for some reason! Obviously, this was my first experience with Greenaway, a director I have since learned is noted for creating disturbing films designed to upset audiences. I'll bet this masterpiece had arty types fleeing for the doors! Boy, I wish I'd seen this in an art house when it came out. I'm used to seeing films dealing with subject matter far worse than this one, but viewers who spend their time watching pictures about relationships and strolls through a park on a sunny day aren't. Yes, Greenaway's film deals with abhorrent themes expressed in undeniably grotesque forms. Yes, the picture has ugly scenes of violence. Yes, relationships of a decidedly revealing nature play a big part in the plot. What did you expect from a NC-17 rated picture? Don't worry-you can handle it. Actually, you'll probably be glad that you sat through it because this is a marvelous movie.
"The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" starts on a particularly memorable note. Big time gangster and thief Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), and his entourage pull up to the back door of a fancy restaurant run by the fabulous French chef Richard Borst (Richard Bohringer), ready for a night of fine dining and obnoxious behavior. Spica is a notorious brute, a beefy, sadistic thug who enjoys tormenting everyone around him, especially his wife Georgina. Greenaway sets the tone immediately by having a pack of dogs snap and snarl outside the restaurant as Spica presides over the humiliation of an underling. The bad behavior continues inside as Spica and his miscreants throw food, insult the staff and fellow customers, and generally make fools out of themselves. Night after night, Spica and his band of dangerous ruffians return to the restaurant, tormenting Borst and his staff as the restaurant's business drains away. No one, it seems, wants to spend an evening eating next to a guy like Spica.
One gentleman seems relatively unbothered by the ruckus a couple of tables over. Michael (Alan Howard), a scholarly looking librarian who always reads a book while he eats, simply ignores Spica's loud theatrics. When he makes eye contact with the gorgeous Georgina, however, sparks fly. Within minutes the two are in the bathroom madly pawing away at each other. The clandestine affair continues night after night, with both Michael and Georgina continually aware that Albert Spica or one of his goons could discover the tryst at any moment. Eventually, the staff of the restaurant plays a part in helping the two lovebirds meet, allowing them to use the nooks and crannies in the cavernous kitchen and deflecting any suspicions posed by Albert. Georgina uses Michael as a respite from her vicious husband, a chance to escape his obnoxious behaviors if even for a few precious minutes. Spica's wife soon finds the strength to flee from Albert, moving in with Michael in his library. The thuggish Albert flies into a rage over his wife's disappearance. It's not that he cares for her in any way (he definitely doesn't), but his massive ego cannot stand the idea of her being with another man. Spica tracks down Michael and has him murdered by stuffing pages from a book about the French Revolution down his throat. The conclusion to the film is one of the most memorable in recent film history.
After I watched Greenaway's film, I looked a few things up. Some bright film critics in England see this picture as a critique of the Thatcher years, with Spica standing in for the right wing, Georgina as England, and her lover as the hapless political left. Maybe, but I didn't see any of that in the film. I spent too much time chuckling over the coarse behavior of Spica and his goons-one played by Tim Roth in an early role, by the way-and enjoying the stunning Helen Mirren. She's so beautiful here that your heart aches over the indignities she suffers at the hands of Albert. She's also not afraid to do some daring scenes, a lesson she probably learned from her role in the Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione classic "Caligula," made some ten years before this film. If you still need to a reason to watch the movie, if the political symbolism and charged situations leave you cold, check out the great musical score by Michael Nyman and the sumptuous atmosphere of the restaurant. The colors and décor of the dining establishment take your breath away, and Greenaway further uses color by having people's outfits change hue as they walk from room to room. What does it all mean? Who knows, but it's fun to watch.
The DVD version of the film I saw didn't have much in the way of extras besides a trailer and a widescreen picture transfer. No matter, though. The movie is challenging enough to make you forget all about commentaries, stills, and any other of the usual extras. After watching "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover," I would like to see other Peter Greenaway films. Unfortunately, most of them have not received a reissue on DVD. If the subject matter is as disturbing as this film, no wonder! I recommend renting this movie and then inviting some friends over to watch it. Don't tell them anything about it beforehand, though. Just sit back and watch the jaws drop.