The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) 4 Stars
France / Netherlands / G.B. (Allarts, Elsevira, Erato, Erbograph, Films, Vendex) 124m Colour
Director: Peter Greenaway
Producer: Kees Kasander
Screenplay: Peter Greenaway
Photography: Sacha Vierny
Music: Michael Nyman
Cast: Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard, Tim Roth, Clarán Hinds, Gary Olsen, Ewan Stewart, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Ron Cook, Liz Smith, Emer Gillespie, Janet Henfrey, Arnie Breeveld, Tony Alleff
Director and writer Peter Greenaway was originally an artist, and this is translated perfectly into this stylish, disturbing, macabre, thrilling film. The title refers to the four main characters of the production – as at times it seems more like a stage play than a film - very literally: we follow the doomed, erotic romance of Georgina (Mirren) and the quiet librarian, Michael (Howard); a romance which is hidden from the former’s tyrant of a husband – Albert Spica (Gambon) – by the heroic head chef of Spica’s restaurant (Bohringer) in which the majority of the production takes place.
Greenaway creates an artistic masterpiece in ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’: with costume designed by Jean Paul Gaultier which instantly, stylishly, changes colour whenever a character moves into a different part of the set; a set over which the camera has almost free roam throughout the production – following the action back and forth, serving to completely immerse the viewer in the manic world they are presented with. Greenaway also manages to fully define his four main characters to incredible specificity, such that even their accents build upon their personalities. Gambon’s ferocious character is not unlike how one might perceive Henry VIII to have been: gorging on fine food throughout the film, whilst surrounded by those who serve him; furthermore a number of the costumes are reminiscent of that era and the painting The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company, which hangs over the dining table, creates a sense of royal grandeur. Spica incites immense fear into the viewer with his sudden rages and violent outbursts; his jealousy of his wife’s lover is so powerful that he commits atrocities almost immediately – including some incredibly disturbing and upsetting scenes, for which I have deducted a star from the film’s score. Helen Mirren’s character evokes pity throughout, mainly due to the oppressive qualities of her husband, qualities from which we hope she will escape or rebel against. ‘Her Lover’, Michael, embodies everything Georgina misses in Spica: he is chivalric, caring for her and treating her as an equal – as opposed to loudly reminding her of ‘how he taught her’ to go to the toilet; one of the many lines Spica employs to assert his dominance over Georgina. ‘The Cook’ appears less than the other main characters of the production, yet he is in many senses the hero. He is unflinching in his emotions; he treats everyone he interacts with in the same manner: a quality which often presents him as the brick wall with which Spica embarrassingly collides. He is arguably characterised as inhuman: the embodiment of cardinal virtues, he also seems to know things (specifically about the lovers) of which no other character has knowledge.
Michael Nyman’s music is undoubtedly one of the most memorable features of the film. The one song ‘Memorial’, which is played in chunks during the film, fits perfectly with the tone of the plot-line and with the staging and direction. Furthermore, the climax of the film neatly coincides with the only time at which the whole twelve minute piece is played uninterrupted, serving to create an immensely powerful and disturbingly macabre finale.
As I have alluded to earlier, the film contains some of the most disturbing scenes I have ever witnessed. At the time I couldn’t believe they were actually happening (my mum had to leave on several occasions), but now it is depressingly clear that they fit perfectly with the scenario devised and the characters involved; they serve a great purpose but I would not deem some of them a complete necessity.
I struggle to decide whether or not to recommend this film. I find it to be an incredibly powerful creation, yet I can understand why one could easily hate every minute of it – an uneasy tension I felt throughout the two hours. I have been affected by this film and am yet to decide whether it is for the better or otherwise; so perhaps it would be wise to stay away from it, but then again I would like someone to share in my experiences with.