194. THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE & HER LOVER (1989)

“Painters hate having to explain what their work is about. They always say, it’s whatever you want it to be — because I think that’s their intention, to connect with each person’s subconscious, and not to try and dictate. For all of his intellectualism, I think Peter Greenaway directs from his real inner gut, and he seems to have a very direct channel in that. The only other director I can think of who’s close is David Lynch.”–Helen Mirren

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Michael Gambon, Richard Bohringer, Alan Howard

PLOT: A brutish but successful criminal with expensive tastes has bought a French restaurant, where he holds court nightly drinking the finest wines and abusing staff and customers equally. A bookseller who dines there catches the eye of Albert’s mistreated Wife, and the two embark on an illicit affair. The Thief’s discovery of their affair sets off a chain of violent reprisals which ultimately draw in the establishment’s Cook.

Still from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)
BACKGROUND:

  • The MPAA denied The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover an R-rating (under 17 not admitted without parent) because of its extreme content (including scat, violence, nudity, cannibalism, and some disgusting stuff, too). Rather than have the film released with an X rating (a designation associated with hardcore pornography in the public mind), Miramax released the film unrated in the U.S. This is frequently cited as one of the films that led to the creation of the adults-only NC-17 rating (under 17 not admitted, a rating which fared little better than X). Cook accepted a NC-17 rating for its DVD release.
  • The controversy did not hurt, and probably significantly boosted, Cook at the U.S. box office, where it grossed over $7 million, becoming the closest thing to a hit Greenaway has ever had.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We are going to skip over the shocking (and spoilerish) final image, and instead focus on the color transitions during the magnificent tracking shots: as Georgina walks from the sparkling white ladies’ room into the royal red of the restaurant’s main dining room, her dress changes color to match the decor.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although not as thoroughly weird as most of the rest of his oeuvre, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is the director’s most beloved (?) movie, and in many ways his poplar masterpiece. While the surrealism here is as subtle as the scatology is explicit, there can be no doubt that Cook is an outrageous, brutish and lovely work of sumptuous unreality from an eccentric avant-gardist that demands a place of honor among the weirdest films ever made.


Original trailer for The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover

COMMENTS: He begins the movie by smearing dog feces on a quivering naked man who owes him money, then urinating on him. This is as much as we will ever like the Thief. Michael Gambon gives the performance of a lifetime, slurring and striking his way through a performance of such audacious bad taste that it becomes a thing of beauty. He holds court at his swanky table, eating the best food, belching, belittling his henchmen, groping his Wife at the table, pouring soup on a customer… and he’s just getting warmed up. He struggles with the names of the French dishes, but when the Wife corrects his pronunciation of “poisson” (he says “poison”), he strikes her in the face with the menu. He’s the dangerous kind of stupid, the sort that can’t see it’s own stupidity and glowers with hatred when it’s pointed out to him. The Thief is bourgeois in the original sense of the word. He’s nouveau riche, one who aspires to the airs of an aristocrat but lacks refinement and taste, using his money to try to buy class. But he inevitably reverts to his criminal habits. We are not at all astonished when he murders someone, or at the obscene lengths he goes to make the assassination an unforgettable spectacle. He is an artist, of a sort, and it will take an equally perverse art installation to one-up him.

If you’ve read anything about The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, you’ve doubtlessly heard that it’s an allegory for Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Roger Ebert’s review lays out the accepted symbolism: the Thief is Margaret Thatcher and the Wife is Britannia; the Cook represents the civil servants and the Lover, ineffectual Leftist intellectuals. Some even go so far as to assert that it is specifically an allegory for the Community Charge/Poll Tax controversy (which seems unlikely to me, since it implies that after finishing Drowning by Numbers in 1988 Greenaway immediately banged out a script based on contemporary events that were still unfolding and had it out in theaters before the controversy was even resolved). Greenaway has called Cook “the only political film I ever made,” saying that it “started as a kind of diatribe against Thatcherite Britain”; still, I think the term “allegory” (which implies a one-to-one symbolic link between fictional characters and events and real life ones) is far too strong for what is more of a generalized anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist fable. If we were to accept the allegorical reading, then how could we explain the story’s final scene? Simply as an appendix by Greenaway, his fantasy revenge on Thatcher? If Cook is a historical allegory at all, it makes more sense as an allegory of the French revolution; that way, the grotesque vengeance that the commoners exact on their oppressors at least makes sense (as well as setting warning bells off in the minds of the historically savvy). To support this view, we at least have the evidence of the Lover’s death, as he is literally killed by “The French Revolution.”

I suspect that some critics like the political interpretation because they believe it provides a legitimate excuse for Greenaway’s passionately disgusting imagery. Which, of course, gets things exactly backwards: movies shouldn’t use politics as a justification for dealing in offensive subject matter like sex and violence, they should use sex and violence as a justification for dealing in offensive subject matter like politics. The truth is that, although there is a political subtext, Cook is not structured as an allegory at all. It is modeled after a particular literary form: the Jacobean revenge tragedy. One of the earliest examples of this populist literary type is Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus,” which ends with Titus baking his enemy’s children into a pie and serving them to their mother to avenge a rape. These plays were known for their bloody spectacles and cruel extravagances; essentially, they were pre-cinematic precursors to Death Wish and modern action films where the criminal scum get what’s coming to them. Rape, madness, ironic punishments, and yes, cannibalism were frequent features in Jacobean tragedies, which were highly artificial and theatrical (even meta-theatrical). The best of them did not simply play to the audience’s bloodlust and need for catharsis, but caused them to question these very qualities in themselves. If the exacted revenge is nauseating enough, then perhaps the viewer will realize that justice isn’t sadism, and some prices are too high to pay.

Cook exhibits all the theatricality of a stage production; it even begins with red-clad attendants pulling back velvet curtains to reveal the “La Hollandaise” parking lot where the first scene begins. The fantastical art design, with its obsessive color schemes—blue for the parking lot, green for the kitchen, rich red for the dining room, sparkling white for the bathrooms—serves as a constant reminder that we are looking at sets. The costuming follows suit, particularly when the Wife’s dress and the Thief’s sash change colors as they walk from one room to the next in the brilliant tracking shots that pass through the walls. Jean-Paul Gaultier’s wardrobes are lusciously decadent, but also frequently absurd, especially in the kitchen staff. One of the cooks goes shirtless (pretty sure that is a health code violation), and if you look carefully you’ll see that one of the waiters has painted spoons glued to his uniform! The Thief’s thugs, meanwhile, dress like characters from the 1616 Frans Hals painting that hangs on the dining room wall, complete with lace ascots. Michael Nyman’s dramatically minimalist music adds enormously to the formalist mood. Nyman’s score also incorporates one of Cook‘s most surreal bits, the androgynous young dishwasher who sings “wash me, wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” in a piercing soprano, accompanied by an unseen chorus. The artificiality and impossibility of what we are seeing tastefully reminds us that this is only a show, distancing us from the horrible crimes that are occurring onscreen.

Cook gets its power from its dualities, from its clash of opposites. It is at the same time high art, and crass exploitation. The Wife, the suffering feminine, is truly refined; the powerful masculine Thief is transparently brutish, now matter how many airs he puts on. The lovingly crafted, urbane cuisine the Cook slaves to create is contrasted with feces, its inevitable fate. “What you’ve got to realize is that a clever cook puts unlikely things together, like duck and orange, like pineapple and ham. It’s called artistry,” the Thief explains, in a moment of accidental brilliance. The Wife and the Lover make love in a bathroom stall, then later take refuge from the rampaging Thief by hiding nude in a truck filled with fetid rotting carcasses. It calls to mind another of the Thief’s pearls of wisdom: “The naughty bits and the dirty bits are so close together that it just goes to show how eating and sex are related.” The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is an angry, misanthropic rant, but also a stunningly beautiful film. It’s a movie with the most hateful of villains, and with heroes pushed to do horrible things. It’s sickening and heartrending and, at bottom, very weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“These visually stunning, ever-changing scenes could only exist on film, and the artifice is a great part of the work’s effectiveness. Mr. Greenaway’s stroke of genius is to create a self-consciously false world peopled with character types who slowly become real enough to evoke pain and sadness.”–Caryn James, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“With a dungeon-like kitchen that looks like it was snatched out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, this is a fantastically bizarre place to eat dinner… Le Hollandais is a surreal place, the kind of fantastic setting that Jeunet and Caro would bring to the screen years later in films like Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)

“…the witty wordplay of Greenaway’s finest work is missing; and though it looks sumptuous enough – with Sacha Vierny’s ‘Scope camera relishing the reds, golds and greens of the set and Jean-Paul Gaultier’s gaudily stylised costumes – shooting in a studio seems to have cramped the director’s taste for elegantly surreal symmetries.”–Geoff Andrews, Time Out London

OFFICIAL SITE:

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover Official Site – Miramax – American distributor Miramax’s site hosts eight clips from the film

IMDB LINK: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) – FAQ – The IMDB FAQ for the movie contains a surprisingly thorough answer to the question, “What is the film ‘about’?,” complete with quotes from and citations to sources that are not available online

Interview with Helen Mirren – Roger Ebert’s interview with star Mirren mainly discusses the ratings controversy

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover – Brattle Theater Film Notes – Good overview of the film and its context in 1980s cinema from Justin LaLiberty

A Freudian Solution to the Attraction – Repulsion Response Evoked by The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover – An archived Freudian interpretation of Cook from Elizabeth Jones, originally printed in Film and Philosophy, 1:1 (Spring, 1992)

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover: a discourse on disgust’ – This essay from Robert Sinnerbrink, originally published in “The Australian Journal of Media & Culture,” vol. 5 no 2 (1990), explores Cook‘s aesthetic of disgust

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (film) – TV Tropes – Typical mix of profound and trivial insights from the crowdsourced catalog of “TV” tropes

Brows Held High: The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover – Comic video review of Cook

DVD INFO: It is truly strange how Peter Greenaway’s most popular works are unavailable on home video. Although there are constant rumors of upcoming Criterion or Blu-ray releases, nothing ever materializes. The situation with Cook is slightly better than Prospero’s Books, because at least this one is easily available via video-on-demand (buy or rent on demand) or Netflix. Still, it seems odd that Miramax/Lionsgate has not re-released this popular cult film since the DVD went out of print. Those with Region 2 playback capabilities can get an extras-free DVD from an Italian company (buy), or even make do with VHS (buy). A Blu-ray is desperately needed, however.

9 thoughts on “194. THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE & HER LOVER (1989)”

  1. That stuff about the revenge play is very interesting. I suppose its more modern manifestation would be that horribly exploitative “rape and revenge” sub genre that was so popular in the exploitation era; but this film sounds like a much more interesting take on the whole concept. Though it’s not surprising that revenge has proved such a timeless theme.

  2. If it wasn’t for this lavishly painted and shot film, I would never of been introduced to the filmography of Peter Greenaway!

    What is your personal fav of Greenaway, Greg?

  3. I still need Prospero’s Books.

    Personally, I love A Zed And Two Noughts and Drowning By Numbers probably because it warms the erudite curmudgeon in me.

    And I think that the Baby of Macon is one of the most sadly unseen films ever made.

  4. Ooooh, I too love Drowning by Numbers (more playful than The Cook…), second the recommendation for The Baby of Macon and throw in a wilfully obscure shout out for his early short films, specifically, my personal favourite – Vertical Features Remake!

  5. And I have a certain love for even his more maligned features like The Belly of The Architect and 8 1/2 Women(conceptually bizarre by itself by reversing the Oedipal familial unit to a literally incestuous between father and son after the death of the mother).

  6. I’d have to agree with Mr Smalley that this isn’t Mr Greenaway’s weirdest movie. I’d go further, though, and suggest that, other than his early (and amusing) shorts, it’s one of his most accessible.

    There’s a toe-hold the audience is allowed with this movie: a straight-forward cast of characters (listed, handily, in the title), a clear progression of time and events (listed, handily, via the week-day intertitles), and the familiar setting of a stage: the opening and closing shots are curtains being drawn, then closed

    In his way, Greenaway meets his viewers half-way. I had the misfortune of watching “the Pillow Book” right on the heels of this movie; I wasn’t necessarily expecting more of the same, but at least something with a pulse. I’m of the suspicion that Greenaway reveled in his own personal excesses (his love of lists, paintings, and lists) in “the Pillow Book” much more so than in “Cook/Thief/Wife/Lover”.

    My faith in other Greenaway wasn’t restored until I recently saw his prior work, “A Zed & Two Noughts” — a movie that doesn’t leave a door ajar to let the viewer in so much as it briefly opens the window for the viewer to come hurtling through.

    “C/T/W/L” stands as my favourite movie, and has done so since I accidentally stumbled across it Many years ago and thought, “Oooh, NC-17!”; I still remember that after first watching it, I was on my feet by the time the end credits rolled.

    That said, I’ll consider my disagreement about certification lodged and noted. Cheers.

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