The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover
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FAQ Contents


A NOTE REGARDING SPOILERS

The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Spoiler tags are used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.

For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs, and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover can be found here.

The correct formulation of the title is as follows:

The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover.

The title should be written with the first letter of every word capitalized, and no punctuation whatsoever (other than the ampersand). This is the way the title is formulated on the title card within the film itself and on the first page of Peter Greenaway's script. If one notices, it is also how IMDb formulates the title.

However, the common way for people to formulate the title is:

The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover.

This is the grammatically correct way to formulate it, and it is also how the title was written on all posters and in all trailers for the movie and on the European DVD cover. It is also how sites such as Wikipedia, Rotten Tomatoes and allmovie, as well as various other popular websites, formulate the title.

The name of the restaurant is Le Hollandais.

What's on the menu?

Friday

les hors d'oeuvres:

Salade du Saison aux Fois Gras

Baguenauda Italien aux Coulions de Tomate

les potages:

Terrine de Crustacs

Essence Ricae du Pot au Feu

les poissons:

Homard glace aux Fruits de Mer

Tranches de Salmon au Crote

les viandes:

Fois de Veau au Confit d'Echalotes et Miel

Canon d'Agneau Pche

Saturday

les hors d'oeuvres:

Terrine de Saumon au Caroubier

Mosaque des Poireaux aux Fruits de Bois

les potages:

Crme Marie Stuarde aux Crotons Dores

Essence Ricae du Pot au Feu

les poissons:

Dlice de Lotte a l'Orange

Paupiettes du Sole Farcies d'Homard

les viandes:

Faires Roti Pompadour

Dlice de Cassard Boqut

Sunday

les hors d'oeuvres:

Jambon San Danielle aux Melon Cantaloup

Pat de Canard Sauvages aux Fois Gras au Crote

les potages:

Consomm aux Fruits les Bois

Elixir de Crustaces au Gele

les poissons:

Brochettes de Langoustine Diana

Loupe de Met aux Champagne en Gondole

les viandes:

Porcelet Farcis des Vieux Maree de Bourgogne

Coronne d'Agneau Roti avec Garnisse

Monday

les hors d'oeuvres:

Blanquette du Sole au Beurre d'Homard

Petite Salade de Crustacs Stefanie

les potages:

Soupire d'Atlantique

Essence du Pot au Feu Churchill

les poissons:

Dlice de Barbue Beatrice

Mariage de Poissons a l'Indienne

les viandes:

Tournedos de Boeuf Rossini

Rble de Lieue St. Hubert

Tuesday

les hors d'oeuvres:

Terrine d'Avocat aux Crabe et Tomates

Gteau de Carottes et Gruyre

les potages:

Bisque de Langoustine aux Ravioli et Concombre

Potages de Moules et Poireaux au Thym

les poissons:

Haddock Fam Alban

Filet de Saumon Bruite au Roquefort et Cleri

les viandes:

Tournedos de Boeuf Bacchus

Caroube d'Agneau Sauce Raifort

What is the film 'about'?

The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover has provoked a myriad of reactions and produced a plethora of varying, and oftentimes contradictory, interpretations. For every critic who claims to know what the film really 'means', there's ten other critics all with completely different readings. And perhaps, ultimately, this very uncertainty and interpretive elusiveness is exactly what the film is in fact about. As Robert Sinnerbrink says in his article "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover: A Discourse on Disgust", the film has run the gamut of interpretations from one end of the spectrum to the other;


From outrage to homage, moralistic renunciation to style and fashion spectacle, the number of different responses and readings the film has provoked shows it to be a volatile site of textual contestation...A complex, contradictory text, which raises questions about representations and readings in (postmodern) texts and contexts.
Could the meaning of the film actually be an examination of the very impossibility of meaning?

Despite the lack of critical agreement however, undoubtedly one of the most common interpretations of the film is that it is an attack on the Margaret Thatcher led conservative government which was in power in the UK from 1975 to 1990. The film is often read as being a specific attack on the Community Charge which was proposed in 1986, passed in 1988 and introduced in 1989. This system of taxation replaced the standard rating system with a single flat-rate per-capita tax on every adult. The system was intensely unpopular, with opponents arguing that it shifted the burden of taxation from the rich to the poor. Shortly after the introduction of the system, the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation was established to co-ordinate the activities of the various Anti-Poll Tax Unions (APTUs) which had been set up across the whole of the UK. The ABAPTF called for mass non-payment, despite the fact that non-payment meant that people could be prosecuted. As the charges began to rise, more and more people followed the calls for non-payment (according to the BBC, some areas reached as high as 30% non-payment). In response, the government introduced harsher enforcement measures, leading to civil unrest and ultimately culminating in several Poll Tax Riots, the most serious of which occurred in London on 31st March, 1990, where over 200,000 people staged a protest in Trafalgar Square.

The film was released in the midst of these events, and a standard political reading at the time goes like this: the Cook (Richard Borst; played by Richard Bohringer) represents civil servants and dutiful citizens who do what they're told to do, even though they know it's wrong; the Thief (Albert Spica; played by Michael Gambon) represents Thatcherite arrogance, crassness and greed; the Wife (Georgina Spica; played by Helen Mirren) is an abstract notion of Britannia; the Lover (Michael; played by Alan Howard) is the ineffectual leftist opposition led by intellectuals who can only theorize about change rather than do anything to actively promote such change. As Manuela Gherghel outlines in his doctoral thesis, "Peter Greenaway's Kitchen: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover",

The interpretation of Spica is as an allegory of Thatcherism, his assimilation to a rapacious, predatory capitalist spirit, driven by incorrigible ostentation and of an unrelenting aggression against everything that is related to mind, culture, intellect. This character and his entourage were designed to be the expression of an abusive, police state, intolerant and invasive, basely materialistic, judging everything in terms of immediate material gain, in violent antagonism with the intellectual elite, which passed in a short period of time from a defensive to an offensive accumulation strategy. The Thatcherite period is identified with a culture of individualism, which propagates late capitalist values and practices, being essentially characterized by consumerism, nationalism, the cult of management and a ferocious spirit of competition.
According to Greenaway, "Maybe the only political film I ever made was The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover which started as a kind of diatribe against Thatcherite Britain." (Wojthiec Orlinski, 'Interview with Peter Greenaway', Gazeta Wyborcza, 1998).

Richard Sinnerbrink also comments on the politically allegorical nature of the film;

Signifying the 'vulgarity' and 'bad taste' of the nouveau riche, Spica is both parody and clich. His is the 'grotesque body' surrounded by sumptuous banquet imagery; an enormous mouth and alimentary canal that seeks to master the world by consumption. He recalls Gargantua in his Rabelaisian excess. The Lover is Enlightenment rationalism, high cultural modernism, a kind of early capitalism, perhaps; the Thief, a grotesque embodiment of consumer capitalism, the monologic discourse which, according to Lyotard, seeks to absorb all in its language of economic consumption and exchange.
Some critics however feel that the film is not so straightforward as to be taken simply as a monolithic attack on a political ideology. Roger Ebert, for example, wrote,

I am not sure Greenaway is simply making an Identikit protest movie, leaving us to put the labels on the proper donkeys. I think the film is more of a meditation on modern times in general. It is about the greed of an entrepreneurial class that takes over perfectly efficient companies and steals their assets, that marches roughshod over timid laws in pursuit of its own aggrandizement, that rapes the environment, that enforces its tyranny on the timid majority which distracts itself with romance and escapism to avoid facing up to the bully-boys.
In actuality, this is not so different than Gherghel and Sinnerbrink's comments above - Ebert is still reading the movie as having a political imperative which attacks the affluent and champions the underling. The only difference in Ebert is that he sees this as being a more universal protest than simply a piece of anti-Thatcherism.

Helen Mirren has a similar universal reading; "I felt it was about ecology. It's basically about crass, vulgar, consumerism. I saw it as the way mankind is consuming and abusing the world."

Along the same lines, Gherghel argues that the film is fundamentally about power and the domination of others;

The sole aim of the characters actions, declared or not, conscious or otherwise, is to acquire something; whether goods, human beings or a new stage in their personal development. The competition is fierce and open, each of them using their own means and waiting for their opponents' mistakes. Power which translates a fundamental instinct of proprietorship galvanizes around power centers, such as Albert and Georgina. They are the two main opponents in this fight, and as army leaders, each of them tries to gather a coalition.
If a political reading of the film is the most common interpretation, the next most common is that it deals with voyeurism and the voyeur-object relationship. Specifically, it has been argued that the film forces the viewer to question their own position as voyeur, especially their tendency to enjoy that position, to celebrate violence or revel in the depiction of sexuality. As Ebert points out,

The audience doesn't watch anger, it feels it, and by the end I was surprised to find myself approving of the horrible vengeance inflicted on the Thief. This is a common reaction to the film, viewers find themselves enjoying the absurd levels of violence and barbarity, and then suddenly realize that they should in fact be appalled by such things.
Clearly, no right-thinking person should approve of a man being forced to eat the cooked body of another man, no matter what the situation, but the film seems to lead the audience into doing just that. In this sense then, the film is about us, about our own relationship to violence in general and violence as depicted in art in specific - it forces us to interrogate our own interpretive strategies by encouraging us to enjoy the barbarity on display, and then pulling the rug out from underneath our feet and pointing out to us that to enjoy barbarity is a form of barbarity itself. As such, the film quite literally, turns us into barbarians.

Helen Mirren alludes to this aspect of the film, suggesting that it deals with violence in an abstract sense, but she is careful to explain that at no point in its depiction of violence is the film 'realistic'; rather, a sheen of artificiality is maintained throughout, a kind of Brechtian verfremdungseffekt which keeps the audience distanced and keeps their critical faculties open.

It gets into a dangerous, dangerous area and people come out thinking they have confronted something in themselves. It's a challenge. It would be irresponsible to use the material in this film for simple commercialism. Our film doesn't manipulate. Greenaway does a lot of things to put a distance between the actions and the style. The movie's clearly artificial, for example. My costume changes color according to the different locations - red in the dining room, green in the kitchen, white in the toilet. It's crazily artificial."
Similarly, Gherghel argues that the film

is a representation, both theatrical - it begins and ends with the rise and the fall of a curtain - and mental, since it is steeped in nothing but imagination and artifice, leaving reality no chance to interfere.
So the film is a self-conscious construct, but one which uses that self-consciousness not so as to analyze itself, but to analyze the viewer, and their acceptance of the absurdities before them.

Analyzing the film from this perspective (the interrogation of the audience as willing practitioners of voyeurism) is grounded in a basic psychoanalytical analysis. Such an analysis can be found in Greg Dancer's article "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover: Violence and Voyeurism". Dancer focuses on voyeurism, masculine dominance, the human body, and (towards the end of the film) metaphorical castration. Interestingly however, whilst Ebert argues that audiences come to enjoy and condone the images of violence and sexuality more and more as the film goes on, Dancer argues the exact opposite;

it feels like a test: How much flesh, sex, and violence can be put up onto the screen before the audience will stop enjoying it, become uncomfortable and begin to dislike images with which they normally associate eroticism and pleasure?
So, Ebert argues that the extreme violence and sexuality has an interrogatory function insofar as the film self-consciously asks how the audience can possibly enjoy what it is seeing; the more sex and violence which is depicted, the more the audience enjoys it. On the other hand, Dancer suggests that violence and sexuality exist as a kind of litmus test for the audience - an experiment of sorts to see how much the audience can take; the more sex and violence which is depicted, the less the audience enjoys it.

In another basic psychoanalytical reading, "A Freudian Solution to the Attraction: Repulsion Response Evoked by The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover", Elizabeth Jones discusses similar issues to those raised in Ebert and Dancer, although she firmly comes down on Ebert's side of the debate as regards viewer's acceptance and yearning for more and more violence and sex;

It is a film about sadism in the broadest sense of the word. Sex, violence, power, voyeurism and guilt are saturated with a theatrical sensuality that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. One cannot help but feel pleasure in the pain. The film forces us to confront our own perversions, to recognize the inhumanity in our own humanity...In understanding the magical qualities of the mimetic arts we can achieve pleasure even in the representation of pain. Of course, the representation itself is the source of pleasure, not the painful act represented. Thus, Aristotle explains our pleasure in artistic pain through the detachment which art provides us. Art is artificial. It is not nature. It is re-presentation. It is not present...Is our fascination with the pain of others unethical and inhuman or is it all too human? The film itself explains how we may take pleasure in another's pain. The more violent the scene, the more sensuous the effect. Sexuality intensifies under the threat of death as the Wife and the Lover copulate between courses at the Thief's dinner parties. The Cook aids the lovers in their trysts, hiding them in his pantries. The scenes of brutality, too, become unbearably sensual. Pain, violence, feces and urine, decaying animal corpses fascinate as they repulse. The nude lovers assume the poses of Adam and Eve as they hide in a truck filled with maggot-ridden corpses. Sensuality becomes sexual whether or not it is pleasurable. Intensity forces its sexual effect. The film makes a case for the inseparability of desire and violence, pleasure and pain. It realizes the truth of its message in the attraction-repulsion response evoked in its viewers. How can one ethically experience pleasure in another's pain? Aesthetic distance does not offer a satisfying solution because the power of art depends upon its believability, its reality, not its artificiality.
Much as does Ebert, Jones is here arguing that the film is about showing us the inhuman in ourselves, showing us how we can take great pleasure from witnessing the unbearable pain of others. The film interrogates our humanity.

So is the film 'about' Thatcherism? Is it about power? Is it about voyeurism? Is it about the audience? Is it about a restaurant? In the end, the film is about what each viewer wants it to be about - there is no fixed, all encompassing meaning to be found within the text. As Gherghel argues,

As we sum up and take stock of this film, we realize that any analysis could go on indefinitely. This is due to the fact that the intellectual openings and references afforded by the film are so numerous that they turn it into a departure point, a pretext, for a great deal of subsequent reflection. In fact, the debate that the film provokes, bears on what is the most basic and fundamental in man. Everything gathered here is primary: the instincts and their expression. What gives uniqueness to the film is the fact that this fable displays basic aspects of the human soul, while using extremely artistic and sophisticated means. Thus, we find in this film a striking disproportion between essence and appearance, between form and content. It is difficult to say which of these aspects overrides the other. Because The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is, above all, a representation, and our belief is that the producers have conceived it as an exercise in style, something like an aesthetic feat. That is why it addresses itself less to the audiences intellect and more to its senses. Before judging, we are invited to follow, to feel and to experience.


For further information, see:

Greg Dancer, 'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover: Violence and Voyeurism', Latent Image, Fall 1991.

Roger Ebert, 'Review of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, available here.

Manuela Gherghel, 'Inside Peter Greenaway's Kitchen: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover', Doctorate Thesis, available here.

Helen Mirren, 'Interview with Roger Ebert', available here.

Elizabeth Jones , 'A Freudian Solution to the Attraction-Repulsion Response Evoked by The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover', Film and Philosophy, 1:1 (Spring, 1992) (archived version available here)

Robert Sinnerbrink, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover: A Discourse on Disgust', Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, 5:2 (Summer 1990); available here.

Upon first viewing The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover, the MPAA refused it an R-rating due to the level of sex and violence, and thus left distributers Miramax with two choices; release it with an X-rating or release it unrated. Filmmakers are generally loath to accept X-ratings for two primary, and connected, reasons. Firstly, the X-rating has become synonymous with hard-core pornography, and secondly, many theatres will not play X-rated movies regardless of their porn content (or lack thereof) because their landlord contracts forbid it. Miramax ultimately went with the unrated option, and included a conspicuous 'For adults only' warning in the advertising campaign. However, the MPAA's decision was not without controversy. Several critics and filmmakers voiced their feelings that the MPAA's refusal to grant the film an R-rating was bordering dangerously close to censorship, when their role should be confined to classification. It was also argued that the rating problem with The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover exposed a massive weakness in the MPAA rating system. Basically, there is no 'Adults Only' category, other than the pornography category; there is no middle ground in the MPAA system, a film is either suitable for everyone (R-rating) or it is porn (X-rating).

One of the harshest and most outspoken critics of the decision to deny the film an R-rating was Roger Ebert. He composed a scathing attack on the MPAA in his review of the movie in the Chicago-Sun Times in which he accused them of ineptitude and hypocrisy;


We live in a country where there is no appropriate category for a serious film for adults. On the one hand, there's the R-rating (which means a film can be seen by anyone in possession of a parent or adult guardian) and on the other there's the X-rating, which has been discredited by its ironclad association with hard-core porno. Why not an A-rating, for adults only? That would be the appropriate rating for a movie like this. But then, God forbid, the theaters might actually have to turn potential customers away! And so the MPAA enters its third decade of hypocrisy, and serious filmmakers like Peter Greenaway, filmmakers with something urgent to say and an extreme way of saying it, suffer the MPAA's tacit censorship.
Actress Helen Mirren was actually flown to LA by Miramax so as to appeal on the film's behalf to the MPAA ratings board. A few days after her appeal, but before the MPAA made their final decision to deny the film the R-rating, Mirren was interviewed by Ebert, and made some extremely interesting observations about the ratings system. Mirren, being English, comes from a film industry with a very straightforward age-based classification system. In 1990, the basic rating groups in the UK and Ireland were U (Universal - anyone could see the film), PG (Parental Guidance - parents should watch before allowing children to see it), 15 (anyone under 15 could not see it) and 18 (anyone under 18 could not see it). Of the more complex MPAA system, Mirren said,

The American system is pretty bad. I think it's bad for adults, since it makes it difficult for them to see films they might really enjoy. And on the other side of it, children see films that I think are dangerous for them as well. The whole R-rating depends on a strange sort of fantasyland where all adults are responsible people, and children only ever go to the cinema with their parents. They don't go with babysitters or older brothers, or with the local drug dealer. It's this lovely sort of apple pie fantasy America that not only doesn't exist in America, it doesn't exist anywhere. It puts too much belief in the responsibility of adults in one direction enforcing the R-rating and not enough belief in the responsibility of adults to choose what they want to see in the other direction. It's very strange and contradictory.
Mirren also pointed out that the MPAA seemed to lack an inherent understanding of their own system, as well as alluding to the simple abuses of that system:

The chairman of the board, Richard Heffner, kept going on and on about the "level of comfort" that an adult would feel taking a child to see this film. He kept on saying, "How comfortable would a parent be, how hot under the collar would he get because he happened to be sitting next to a 9-year old?" Well, of course, that's the joke of the R-rating; what business would any adult have bringing a 9-year-old to this film in the first place? I made a long speech about art, and what was art in filmmaking. I said that if a film was done with a deep, imaginative, artistic intent, even if children did go to see it, I think it's less destructive to them than going to see so many of the horrible films that come out under an R-rating. I can't see where anything in our film is more destructive to the human spirit than the sort of mindless violence they do approve for children.
Due to this, Mirren argues that the MPAA has inherently failed to 'protect' the youth which it is ostensibly there to protect; "In America, I think that a generation has grown up that's absolutely dead to a certain kind of hostile sex and violence. It has no effect at all. It's simply movement on the screen." Interestingly enough, this film, along with John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Pedro Almodóvar's Átame! are usually seen as the three main films which prompted the MPAA to create the NC-17 rating; the rating which was exactly what Ebert was calling for when he said "there is no appropriate category for a serious film for adults."

Roger Ebert's review of The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover can be found here. His interview with Helen Mirren can be found here. For more information on the rating system, see here.

The R1 US DVD, which was released by Anchor Bay Films on March 13, 2001 and which is now out of print, contains two theatrical trailers.

The R2 UK DVD, which was released by Universal Home Entertainment (UK) in 2003 contains no special features other than subtitles and scene selection.

Yes it is, but only in a Mexican edition entitled El Cocinero, El Ladrn, Su Esposa, y Su Amante. However, the disc is region free, with the original English soundtrack and the uncut version of the film.

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