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THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard
Director:  Peter Greenaway
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  Two Trailers
Length:  124 Minutes
Release Date:  March 13, 2001

Film ****

There have been many films where the art of dining was integral to the story, but none that turns the simple act of eating into a nightmare the way Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover does.  From the strange, slow opening shots of dogs in the street pulling their meat apart, Greenaway coaxes us into think about the strange, savage act of eating:  whether enjoying a thick, juicy steak or a simple garden salad for our meal, the bizarre fact is that something that once lived has died so that we might feast.

Then, of course, there’s the social staple of dining out in restaurants, such as the one that provides the setting for this film.  We take it for granted, but Greenaway suggests that the act embraces a certain strangeness on different levels.  For example, one room over from the lush dining room area is the noisy, hot, kitchen where the meals are prepared.  While well dressed, posh individuals speak of politics, art and society, low paid workers are sweating it out amongst piles of dirty pots and pans.  Both exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship, yet one side clearly has the advantage over the other.

Into this world of food and folly come the four title characters.  The thief is Albert (Gambon), who is as vile an ogre as any troll you might remember from bedtime stories.  He’s rich, and of course, has gotten his money in ill-gotten ways.  He delights in the bullying of those weaker than him, or those lower in station, which he deems to be just about everybody.  He is the majority owner of this restaurant via some kind of protection racket, and seems determined to make this beautiful dining site more reflective of his crude tastes and ideas.  He’s under the sad impression that eating in an expensive restaurant night after night, and trying dishes that he can’t even pronounce correctly gives him an aura of class.  It doesn’t…but few in his circle are going to argue that with him.

He brings along his quiet, suffering wife Georgina (Mirren), whom at first seems to be an easy target for Albert, who insults, assaults, and humiliates her constantly in the presence of the other diners and his crew.  But things are about to change for her…on the fateful night the film opens with, she catches the eye of Michael (Howard), an equally quiet bookworm across the room.  He becomes the lover of the title, as the two begin engaging in more and more dangerously bold acts of lovemaking in the restrooms, the kitchen, the refrigerator, and anywhere else they can steal a moment away from the burning eyes of Albert.

The cook, Richard (Bohinger) is perhaps the one man who can stand up to Albert, though his confrontations are more cynical than forceful.  We see early on that he catches wind of what Georgiana and Michael are engaged in, but he doesn’t feel it his duty to say anything.  He serves as a quiet, indifferent voice of reason in otherwise mad proceedings.

One could argue that the real star of the picture is not the characters, however, but the colorful, nightmarish world Greenaway creates with art design, set decoration, and lighting schemes.  The restaurant has a dreamy, otherworldly quality to its gigantic red dining room where splashes of green unceremoniously break up the images into clashing colors, and where doorways are much too large for the meager individuals who work and play there, dwarfing each of the characters to perhaps their proper scope.  From room to room, the harsh color schemes change…and outfits change with them inexplicably.  The restroom is my favorite set:  huge and white, with a strange pink light that filters in whenever the unseen door is opened.

This bizarre and surreal setting allows for the story to progress, which takes place over several consecutive nights, each one introduced by the day of the week atop a very ornate menu.  Each evening, it’s a little bit of the same:  the crass Albert bludgeons and bullies his way through his restaurant, insulting everyone and making conversation like, “Did you know a cow drinks twice its weight in water in one week?”  Helen and Michael continue their strange, sexy affair in more and more suggestive and bold ways.  The cook remains humorous and non-committed to Albert’s classless ideas about how the restaurant should go (including, we see, two giant trucks of food and dead meat that Albert brings at the beginning of the film…they are not welcomed by the cook, and slowly turn rotten over the course of the few days). 

Everything climaxes when Albert learns of the affair.  In a destructive rage, he declares, “I’ll cook him!  And I’ll eat him!”  What is the old saying…be careful what you wish for?

I should stress, this film is NOT for everybody…in fact, critics were evenly but adamantly divided.  For every one who found the picture a fresh, exciting vision that rejected subtlety and timidity, there was one who dismissed it as deliberately vulgar, disgusting, and pornographic.  I could easily make the argument for the latter point of view, but I wouldn’t agree with it.

Peter Greenaway has been called by some of his admirers as the most significant British filmmaker since Michael Powell, though stylistically, his work seems to find a deliberately uncomfortable medium between David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick.  Like Lynch, he entrances and unsettles with dreamlike imagery, and like Kubrick, he fascinates with a sometimes cold, detached approach to his characters.

My recommendation?  If you’ve a taste for the adventurous, watch The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover sans popcorn, because it won’t take long before you start to lose your appetite.  Fall under its brilliant, creepy yet sometimes funny and sexy spell and walk away with your perceptions of food forever changed.  You have been warned.

Video ****

Kudos to Anchor Bay for a glorious anamorphic transfer.  Two things are apparent right from the start:  this film needs to be seen in its original widescreen, and it needs to be seen on DVD.  Greenaway’s vast, conflicting and strangely beautiful color schemes render perfectly here, and that’s no small praise.  Given the abundance of strong reds in the dining room scenes, the color most prone to bleeding, Anchor Bay’s transfer delivers a quality rendering with no distortions and excellent containment, so that colors in contrast settle nicely, if not harmoniously, side by side.  This film is filled with tiny visual details, and from the items on the dinner plates to the minutest props in the kitchen, all come across with good sharpness.  The print is in good form throughout, and at no time does it suffer from undue grain, compression artifacts, over enhancement or shimmer.  In other words, in a film where the look is the star, Anchor Bay has rolled out the red carpet treatment for it.

Audio **1/2

The Dolby surround mix is adequate, if unspectacular by nature.  I noticed very little discretion from the rear stage, which was mostly utilized for simple music and ambient effect.  The forward stage is much busier, with good use of split stereo sound.  Dialogue is always clean and clear, as are the music and occasional effects.  Dynamic range is fair, but not overpowering.  All in all, a perfectly good listen.

Features *

Two theatrical trailers.

Summary:

The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover are an unwholesome, if utterly fascinating foursome that inhabit a strange, dreamy world that contrasts the beautiful with the repulsive, and carry out a bizarre story of class struggle, lust, violence, revenge, and of course, food.  Some will embrace it, others will flee in disgust.  If you’ve a taste for something different, masterful and unforgettable, give this top notch disc from Anchor Bay a spin in your player.  Bon appetit.