REVIEW: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover [1989]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NC-17 | Runtime: 124 minutes | Release Date: October 13th, 1989 (UK)
Studio: Palace Pictures / Miramax
Director(s): Peter Greenaway
Writer(s): Peter Greenaway

“The naughty bits and the dirty bits are so close together”

The above quote pretty much sums up Peter Greenaway‘s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. High society and criminal filth: seemingly disparate sectors of civilization that wouldn’t truly wish to consort together yet constantly overlap through history to almost merge into one. The surface context of the words concerns a conversation about the close proximity between genitals and anuses during dinner as only the boorishly crude gangster Albert Spita (Michael Gambon) could describe, but it also deals with his inexplicable presence at Richard Boarst’s (Richard Bohringer) French restaurant Le Hollandais. Spita has strong-armed his way in, buying the establishment as means of “offering protection” despite really just wanting to move up a social ladder he’s no business ascending. Worlds collide; hilarity (and sex) ensues.

Greenaway has a bold vision and fearlessly sees it to fruition from the Clockwork Orange-like beginning of uncensored abuse shot with clinically precise camera movements to the insane conclusion at gunpoint above a glazed roast of unusual origins. That opening also introduces two trucks filled to the brim with meats of multiple varieties—”gifts” from Spita to Boarst that the chef wants nothing to do with considering they could have come from anywhere knowing the kind of man his new manager is. The food rots throughout the film until the police silently enter, worried but unsure what to do with the cesspool presented just as metaphorically decaying carcasses ruin the establishment from inside too. Spita has a unique talent for turning success into a certifiably epic mess.

Case in point is his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren). We can only imagine why she’d be with a guy like him because she skirts the question when asked by her titular “lover” (Alan Howard‘s Michael) halfway through—their elicit affair sparked across the dining room begins shrouded in absolute silence so sexuality can trump any potential intellectual hang-ups a proper bookkeeper and the arm candy of an oaf may conjure. Details of her past are sprinkled about to presume she met Albert at an early age, perhaps before he became the monster we now know him as. In the meantime, however, Georgina embraced the high life’s offering of gourmet food and captivating company. Every second within in it transforms Albert from “naughty” to the dirty pig he is.

This affair becomes the driving force behind the plot as Georgina and Michael’s tryst escalates with every day marked by a new menu. Richard, sick of Albert’s meddling and uncouth demeanor, assists them in finding quiet corners of his kitchen to quench their carnal desires. We know the game will eventually be discovered, but we enjoy the farce while it lasts mainly because of how outlandishly wild Greenaway presents it atop his elaborate set. The fact that Gambon literally cannot shut-up doesn’t hurt either as he drones on and on about subjects he more than likely is making up out of thin air to seem important to a party of mindless idiots by his side (played by the likes of Tim Roth, Ciarán Hinds, and Roger Ashton-Griffiths).

His Albert is the only thing louder than the set itself, a massive construction consisting of an outside parking lot overlooked by Le Hollandais’ façade which enters into the establishment’s gigantic kitchen separated by a bathroom hallway from the even bigger dining hall graced with Frans Hals’ 1616 painting A Banquet of the Officers of the George Civic Guard Company. The camera dollies back and forth between them—Wes Anderson must have seen it before planning out The Life Aquatic—in case Gambon must drag Mirren through each room in a fit of rage. Its ostentatious design complements its strange inhabitants consisting of young eunuch soprano busboy Pup (Paul Russell) and a shirtless sous chef. Georgina and Michael’s sexual exploits therefore fit right in amongst the pheasants.

I’m a fan of black comedy and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is definitely a singular entry to the genre, but I wonder whether too much is happening. We know the type of cretin Albert is five minutes into the film so watching him unravel and ruin any sense of order Richard had instilled within the restaurant doesn’t need to go on so long. We also know Georgina cannot hide her love under his nose forever—the simple fact she meets Michael portends the inevitable fallout. That’s not saying the progression from bathroom sodomy to a public food cupboard employees use around them isn’t necessary to move towards someone finding out. I just can’t lie and say the repetition didn’t get boring in stretches.

Eventually Greenaway leaves the restaurant for a brief respite from the monotony before returning under somberly dark circumstances, but it leads into the most arduous bit yet wherein Georgina must convince Richard for a favor. I feel like we should be happy to understand some type of romantic kinship between them, but we’ve known they were on the same side opposite Albert from the start. And by that point I didn’t much care. The unlikely misunderstanding extending their two-minute conversation into a ten-minute slog isn’t a funny enough joke to warrant the length or stave off the resulting payoff we’ve been clamoring to experience. What began extremely fast-paced and deliciously lewd suddenly crawled to a halt right when it needed to quicken even more towards its end.

Whatever my issues with the climactic build-up, however, I cannot deny the audaciousness of the whole. This two-hour unrated romp making it to theaters is a win for the art form and it being a true delight of uncensored glee only enhances its legend. Gambon and Mirren relish their roles, instilling a pitch-black edge when campiness could have easily arrived instead. Howard and Bohringer as the consummate straight men to the insanity surrounding them provide a dryness towards Gambon that earns his best ammunition for unbridled energy to spew forth from his bottomless mouth of bile. High society is most definitely infiltrated by an uninvited criminal element, but they willingly take a page from its book to end the charade as viciously as it began.

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