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Imagine the universe as a restaurant. The parking lot is the world. The
kitchen is purgatory. The ladies's room is heaven. The dining room is
hell. Hell is ruled over by Albert Spica, (Satan) excellently played by
Michael Gobon. Dante is Michael (Alan Howard) a cataloger of French
books. Beatrice, Dante's perfect woman, Georgina Spica (Helen Mirren)
who is married to the devil.
In the beginning, the cook (God) in the real world is seen kicked and smeared and fed dog feces by Gabon. He is humiliated and in tears, but He endures and eventually helps to further the love between Howard and MIrren. Sex, in its pure form, is looked at as something sacred. Gabon lords over everyone in his realm with a tyrant's fist, caring nothing about anyone or anything. He wants two three things out of lifesuperiority to all other being, food and sex, while Mirren, as a reluctant Persephone, sneaks off to be with Howard. A couple of times Gabon even finds his way into the sanctity of heaven, but this is only short-lived.
The mood of the film is dark-black, heralded by brilliant reds or greens, and the tenor of an angelic child throughout. Every image is like a painting. Emotions creep in from all directions.
This is a film that would never, no matter what year it was produced, have won an Academy Award. It is too refined, to subtle, too sensual, too intelligent.
Watch it, rent it, buy it. It must be seen.
The "inside story" of this film is color. Most professional reviewers,
with nation-wide media exposure, missed this underlying story element
entirely, as did I, until half way through my first viewing. Once I
realized the colors of the costumes changed, as the characters passed
from room to room, I had to go back and see it again. That's how I got
During the next viewing, I took note of the creativity and effort that went into the design and construction of the costumes, several times, as each one had to be rendered in several colors. The next time through, I noticed how the color of each room related to the activity that normally took place there, even in the outdoor sequences. With the subsequent viewing, I concentrated on the soundtrack.
From that point on, my awareness of all these elements, served to enhance my appreciation of each character and his or her contribution to the story line. That's when the much talked about "gross-out" aspects of the film seemed to diminish in their ability to shock. In fact, by that point, they seemed to fit much more naturally, although the "NC-17" rating is absolutely appropriate.
This is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears of intelligent "adult" viewers. Not to be missed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Peter Greenaway brought to the screen this visually striking tale of
revenge centered on its four characters and in its 124 minutes he pulls
out all the stops to make sure he not only dances over the edge of the
cliff, but jumps right over and shows us the belly of the beast.
At a symbolic level, this may very well be the "thinly veiled parable against Thatcherism" that many critics have pointed at, and it's not hard to see. Taking place at a restaurant in which Albert and Georgina Spica (expertly played by Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren) dine day in, day out, always accompanied by Spica's entourage of yes-men (among them a young Tim Roth), Albert indulges in the excesses of food and berates everyone around him, including his mutely suffering wife.
The first scene -- as a matter of fact -- establishes the entire mood of the film. Albert Spica is seen outrageously humiliating a naked man outside the restaurant as the overwhelming stench of decay and the presence of wild dogs linger on. Employees from the restaurant shortly come and hose the man from the excrement he has been slathered in. What it is saying is, we are entering a world of moral and spiritual decay in which Those In Power abuse their positions to the extreme, as the observers only stand by and go on with their business.
These bystanders are the people who work at the restaurant. Among them is the Cook, played by Richard Bohringer, who faithfully serves Spica and his yes-men meal after meal and makes no opinion as they loudly banter about the difference between this dish and that dish -- essentially saying nothing worthwhile --, while all the time Georgina silently eats on, almost like a non-entity. That is, until she notices a quiet, intellectual-looking man, reading a book. This man is Michael, the Lover, played by Alan Howard, a man who does not talk but oozes intelligence. And it's this element which attracts Georgina's eye... and then more.
It's clear where Peter Greenaway is going to take us, the viewer. The scenes involving the urgent, dangerous lovemaking between Michael and Georgina are unspeakably intense, even in later scenes when they meet in the kitchen among the ever-present cooks and are getting more comfortable with themselves. Greenway's Spica becomes so completely menacing his presence overflows the screen. He commits acts of intolerable cruelty against anyone who stands in his way -- he is the Terror during the French Revolution, the Dictator from every country who has had one who will torture those who give of even a slight resistance. And once Georgina's and Michael's clandestine affair is brought to light, needless to say, all hell breaks loose and Greenway sets the stage for his horrific, stomach-turning denouement.
In Georgina, Helen Mirren has created a character that is deeply suffering, infinitely patient... and that makes her the more dangerous. That she has to go through so much pain and humiliation to make a 180 degree turn to cold, ruthless avenger makes her the ultimate heroine. Her foil to Albert -- an essentially one-note role -- also serves his undoing. Alan Howard communicates so much as well in his almost silent role, and in a revelatory note, I'll say this: their nude scene is one that is rife in sensuality and proves that one doesn't need Hollywood hard-bodies to make an erotic scene work.
THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER is not a movie for all tastes -- pun intended. However, it's one of the most avant-garde, intelligent stories that demands to be seen numerous times. I admire the lavish scenery Greenaway created for each area of the restaurant because it gives this extremely modern film a Renaissance feel and elevates its inherent symbolism. Grotesque but beautiful at the same time, it has a powerful cinematic language that has a style all its own.
Here's the weird secret of this movie: you might actually enjoy it.
Peter Greenaway once commented, "film is too important to be left in the hands of story- tellers." Like almost everything Godard ever said, it's a preposterous statement that ought to be heeded.
As a filmmaker Greenaway has always delighted in puzzle-pictures; from the twin-based symmetry of "A Zed and Two Naughts" to the subliminal counting-game of "Drowning by Numbers" to the mad frames-within-frames of "Prospero's Books" his films resemble nothing so much as one of Graeme Base's wonderful children's' books ("The Eleventh Hour" and "Animalia" for instance) brought to life. Plus, of course, a great deal of nudity and assorted nastiness-- enough to get the works of one of the most original filmmakers living a rather sordid reputation.
So, once you've recovered from the visceral shock of watching "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" the first time, take a step back and watch it again. Yeah, I mean that, do it. Look at it this time as you might a painting by Heironymus Bosch: what appears to be a madman's chaotic hellscape turns out to have a precise allegorical order, and contains such a wealth of symbolism that one viewing cannot possibly be enough to absorb it all. A scene that may seem gratuitously horrific (a naked couple enclosed in a truck full of rotting meat-- probably the moment that jolted me the most) in fact reveals a medievalist's precision (Adam and Eve, cast from Paradise for the First Big Sin, are suddenly subject to the corruption of the flesh). An abstract concept is thus made perfectly and accessibly literal.
Different viewers may prefer to see this movie as religious allegory, political screed, or wry class commentary. The fact is it is all of these, and probably more. The irony of Greenaway's quote above is that he is in fact story-telling on several levels at once. (It's the same irony in the comment that "Seinfeld" was a "show about nothing" when in fact there was more going on per episode than in any other ten sitcoms. It just wasn't "simple.")
In response to criticism over the bloodshed in his movies, Godard once said "It isn't blood, it's red." Meaning: it's all part of a composition, the way color is used on a painter's canvas. It's there for a point, just like Greenaway's explicit yet elegant shocks. With that mind, watch this movie, and enjoy it. It's sharp, gruesomely witty, and as remarkable to look at as almost anything in the Met. If you can handle really thinking, you can handle this, and we all can, can't we?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Let's say that you're an avid film-goer and you want to test your level of
tolerance in terms of the type of bad taste, vile and disgusting screen
images you can bear. Certain people would direct you to the zombie/cannibal
movies made in Italy in the 1970s and if you took their advice you would
indeed find yourself faced with some pretty unpleasant viewing material.
However, such films are also very poorly made, with an emphasis on
exploitation and somewhat shaky and grainy camera work. For an equally vile
and disturbing film, made with considerably more skill and elegance (not to
mention aspects of a Jacobean revenge play to please the intelligensia) look
no further than The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. This movie is
just as outrageous, nauseating and horrific as any Italian cannibal flick,
but in a breathtakingly artistic way.
Michael Gambon gives a menacing portrayal as a vulgar gangster with a penchant for rich food. He is a regular customer at an elegant restaurant where he and his cronies, and his unhappy wife, wine and dine while exchanging tales of crime and debauchery. One evening his wife claps eyes on a rather geeky librarian at a nearby table; she fancies him immediately and before you know it the pair are embarking on a torrid sexual affair. Gambon discovers that his wife is having this affair so he has the librarian killed but his wife teams up with a cook from the restaurant to come up with a terrifying revenge plot.
It's impossible to reveal the details of the revenge plot without spoiling the film, but suffice to say that it is unforgettable, revolting and ingenious. Greenaway directs the film in his customary unique visual style, but the narrative is more viewer-friendly than usual in his films, making this one of his more watchable and entertaining offerings. The actors give great performances (brave performances, too, considering the explicit full frontal nudity they are asked to do). The music richly complements the scenes on screen. This film is remarkable on many levels but it's definitely adults-only stuff and even then it's not for all tastes. However, if you want something a little different and you're not afraid to be seriously disturbed, this will do nicely.
I saw this almost fifteen years ago and I still have crystal clear mental images of some of the scenes. The chef at his table in the kitchen, planning his menu: stunning! Put it in a frame, hang it on the wall. In the restaurant scenes, you feel like you're there at the table as the camera pans, without cuts, from one person to another. Our heroes locked in the truck full of rotting meat: horrible, disgusting, perfect. It's a classic purification ritual and it's literally putrid. Greenaway is a genius. My only criticism is a minor one. There is a full frontal nude scene of the wife and her lover, where he is clearly more "relaxed" than he should have been at that moment. I'm a bit disappointed in Greenaway for not showing him at "attention", as he would have been in real life. But then, I guess he would have been accused of making porn. Whatever. This film is not for everyone. My wife didn't see it. I'm sure she would have hated it if she had. For that matter, I can't actually say I liked it, although I consider it a masterwork. But I'm glad I saw it. I'll probably see it again, but not until I can see it on HDTV. Plain old DVD couldn't possibly do it justice. An amazing movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
One can probably assume from the film 'The Cook, the thief his wife and
lover' that director Peter Greenaway has a rather warped view of humanity;
he is nihilistic about society's future, abhorrent of Thatcher's regime
furiously condescending of the entrepreneurial upper classes and their
exploitation of the workers. This anger manifests itself in the shocking
scenes of violence and depravity contained in the film, which earned the
film an X certificate back in 1989 and (surprisingly) resulted in the film
reaching a larger audience than anyone anticipated (the film grossed over
million in the USA) and proved that there is more weight to the old adage
'no publicity is bad publicity' than one might expect. However it should
be forgotten that the film received almost unanimously euphoric reviews
film critics (or at least from those that didn't flee from the cinema) and
is indeed one of the most brilliant, visceral, imaginative and unique
of cinema. It's not for all tastes, but those who can stomach it will be
rewarded with a slice of delectable cinematic cuisine of the highest
The film's central locale is 'Le Hollondais', a restaurant of the most impeccable quality in every aspect. Night after night the restaurant is attended not only by an assortment of wealthy and decadent noveau riche, but also by low-level gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) accompanied by his tormented wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) and a consortium of pimps, hit-men and psychopaths. Each evening Albert treats the dining area of the restaurant like his court, spewing out vile speeches of ignorance and bigotry, making unqualified criticisms of the cuisine and assaulting any of the other diners if they object to his hog-like behaviour. The chef (Richard Bohringer) despises Albert, but presents a façade of obedience and servitude to avoid any maltreatment from Albert and his cronies (much like the other dining guests, who exhibit remarkable patience with the revolting Albert). Georgina seems resigned to marital martyrdom, but also sees the ridiculousness of Albert's arrogance and pomposity (though she rarely contradicts him, he hits her with the exquisitely calligraphic menu when she does). However, one night her eyes meet Michael's (Alan Howard), an intellectual who sits quietly in the corner of the restaurant, delicately eating his meal whilst engrossed in his book, seemingly oblivious to Albert's loud displays of crudeness. Lightning (proverbially) strikes and with little hesitation the two make for the Ladies toilet, where they engage in a passionate tryst in one of the cubicles. And thus the cycle begins; each night Albert continues his rants and consumption of excessive amounts of food, whilst the cook assists Georgina in finding hiding places for her and Michael to make love. However the naturally distrustful Albert soon realises he is a cuckold and orders that lover be killed by having each page of his book thrust down his throat with a sharp spindle. Georgina, however, is able to turn the tables on Albert, which leads to the films shocking denouement where the thief receives his just desserts in a manner best described as poetic justice.
So what is the film about? Is it a darkly humorous political satire on our materialistic times? Is it exploitative pornography coupled with scenes of unnecessary brutality? Or is it simply a story about a cook, a thief his wife and her lover? This is not an easy question to answer; the film's political undercurrents are intentionally enigmatic and vague, Greenaway certainly isn't handing us the answers on a silver platter (in interviews he refuses to talk about his film's subliminal meanings) and we are left to our own devices to discern the films message (if indeed it possesses one). Whilst one could simply accept the film as an updated Jacobean tragedy mingled with the savagery of a Charles Bronson revenge flick, this would rob the film of its allegorical significance, which the film most certainly possesses (in a strangely subversive way). I personally tend towards the argument that 'The Cook the thief his wife and her lover' is Greenaway's manifesto for his disgust at Britain's social hierarchy; the excesses of the wealthy, their subjugation of the workers and their insatiable desire for (as Dickens's Oliver would put it) 'more'.
The quartet of main actors give performances of uninhibited power; they must metaphorically (and in the case of Helen Mirren and Michael Howard, literally) bare all. Each inhabits their character perfectly; the dour, soft spoken Richard, who subversively undermines Albert's authority by assisting Georgina in her sexual caprices, is played with model restraint and calm by Richard Bohringer (although his thick French accent is sometimes hard to comprehend). The part of Lover is less straightforward (he says nothing for the film's first 40 minutes) but Michael Howard acquits himself well to a rather limited role, the real tour de force performances, however, are delivered by Mirren and Gambon. Georgina's transformation from abused wife, to daring lover, to seeker of vengeance is perfectly portrayed by Mirren, she is the film's defiant heroine and earns our sympathies for her desperate plight. As Roger Ebert surmised so aptly 'Gambon plays Albert as the kind of bully you can only look at in wonder, that God does not strike him dead' he is the epitome of excess (gastronomically, egotistically, financially etc.) and lacks any redeeming features, but Gambon also has the talent to give a performance that makes us realise what a pathetic and (surprisingly) vulnerable character he is (though he's still utterly loathsome).
Upon its release many saw the film as a political allegory with the thief representing the tyrannical Thatcher, who subjugates the dutiful workers (the cook) whilst ruining Britannia (the wife). This behaviour is all ineffectually opposed by left wing intellectuals (the lover). Whether or not this is true, indeed whether or not you love or loathe this film, it is a powerful experience that will linger with you for quite some time.
My Score: 9 out of 10
First of all, I have to say that this film is one of my personal
favorites, and that it is one of those things one must see during his
or her lifetime.
Truthfully, however, I first got into this film after hearing clips of the soundtrack on the Japanese version of Iron Chef, during a time before it was acquired by the Food Network. This film score, composed by the great post-minimalist Michael Nyman, is still one of the most haunting and soul-stirring scores in my opinion, if not the one of the most impressionable bodies of musical work ever. I still listen to the album on a weekly basis - it gets under your skin that way.
The film itself is a piece of total art, as others have said. The sets are saturated with their singular color schemes (blue for the restaurant's exterior, green for the kitchen, white for the restrooms, and red for the main dining hall) , and people who have any sort of artistic training have valued and will continue to value this film as a character study of color. In this present age where most films present their interpretations of visual thrill through costly CG and SFX technologies, this film is a testament to how color can be a driving influence behind effective set design and cinematography.
The principal actors, including the always amazing Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon, are first rate. Helen Mirren's Georgina is a truly heart-wrenching character, especially in the face of Gambon's portrayal of Albert Spica, a poor excuse for a human being and one of cinema's cruelest villains. The cook and lover are merely catalysts, serving to instigate the final act that is the undoing of Albert's overreaching tyranny.
I suppose the anti-Thatcher sentiment is highly applicable to this film, but since I am not a British citizen, I feel that I cannot comment on this. However, I think the film's allegory can also be applied to other scenarios where a brutish figure uses violence and exploitation as a way to control others whose primary fault is only residing in the same physical/social/legal domain as the brute.
In short, a masterpiece.
Revenge has never been served so deliciously and artistically. The
visuals, the costumes, the set decoration, the changing colors
cinematography and the soundtrack in this darker than dark comedy are
stunning - the grandmasters were working on the movie. Among them Peter
Greenaway, first and foremost a painter and a fine one, his brilliant
cinematographer Sasha Verny, his astounding composer Michael Nyman who
used for the movie the incredible "Memorial", and Jean-Paul Gaultier
who designed the costumes. It also helped that Helen Mirren (as the
long suffering wife, Georgina who in the end will serve her husband
very well cooked revenge) and Michael Gambon (Albert- the thief, the
gangster, the embodiment of pure evil and the owner of the swank
restaurant) were two stars. Alan Howard plays a regular guest to whom
Georgina is attracted to and carries on an affair with in the
restaurant's restrooms and later in the back rooms, with the help of
the Artist-cook (Richard Bohringer).
Every frame of each Greenaway's movie looks and feels like an exquisite painting. "A Zed and two Naughts" is Greenaway's homage and admiration for Vermeer. "The Draughtsman's Contract" quite openly refers to Caravaggio, Georges de la Tour and other French and Italian artists. "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover", a fully realized vision of the director, a professional painter Peter Greenaway, is his tribute to the great Flemish and Dutch painters, Frans Hals, in particular. His large group portrait is constantly seen in the background of the hall in the London restaurant Le Hollandais that means "The Dutchman". I see Peter Greenaway as Hieronymus Bosch of the cinema, the creator of enormously beautiful, divine canvas depicting all horrors of hell that only humans can inflict on one another.
The cruel and sadistic crime boss Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) has
dinner every night in his restaurant with his wife Georgina Spica
(Helen Mirren) and his gang. Albert abuses of his wife, his gangsters,
the chef Richard Borst (Richard Bohringer) and the restaurant
When Georgina meets the gentle bookseller Michael (Alan Howard) in the restaurant, they have a torrid affair in the restroom and in the store, and they are covered by Richard. However the prostitute Pat discloses to Albert that he has been betrayed by Georgina and Albert kills Michael. However Georgina plots revenge against Albert with the support of Richard and the victims of Albert.
"The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover" is one of the most grotesque, eschatological, bizarre and weird films that I have ever seen. But it is also absolutely original and mesmerizing, with intense use of colors, and with the contrast of vulgarity and art. Food, eschatology, sex, cruelty, torture, cannibalism and revenge are entwined along 124 minutes running time. The result is not pleasant and only specific audiences will appreciate this film. Last time I had seen this film was on 08 September 2000 on VHS. My vote is eight.
Title (Brazil): "O Cozinheiro, o Ladrão, Sua Mulher e o Amante" ("The Cook the Thief, His Wife and the Lover")
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