THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER
Review by Michael Jacobson
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Two theatrical trailers.