Film Review: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

in #aaalast year


One of the more embarrassing episodes in late 20th Century Hollywood history was the major tightening of censorship and the way it was made possible with introduction of new MPAA ratings that had been originally devised to give more creative flexibility to the film makers. One of the films that contributed to the process was The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, 1989 British drama written and directed by Peter Greenaway.

The Cook, one of four main characters, is Richard Borst (played by Richard Bohringer), French chef that runs La Hollandais, elegant and classy London restaurant, which is frequently visited by the Thief or Albert Spica (played by Michael Gambon), powerful, arrogant and sadistic gangland boss. Spica comes there with the retinue of henchmen, because he fancies himself enjoying gourmet food, but even more enjoyment is given by his practice of insults, intimidation and physical violence directed at his men, restaurant staff and other patrons. Among Albert’s victims is his elegant but long-suffering wife Georgina (played by Helen Mirren) who, while forced to listen to endure husband’s misbehaviour happens to notice Michael (played by Alan Howard), quiet bookseller who spend much of his time at the restaurant table reading book. Two of them are quickly attracted to each other and begin using Georgina’s visits to toilet to start torrid affair, which would continue even when Richard becomes aware of it. Despite their precautions, Albert finds about the Georgina’s infidelity and exacts brutal revenge on Michael. Georgina reacts by asking Richard to help her exact even more brutal revenge of her own.

Films of Peter Greenaway is an acquired taste, and the very beginning of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover gives rather graphic answer why is so. Scene begins with dogs eating thrown meat on the street and continues with Albert having one of his late playing “clients” stripped naked, forced to engage in coprophagia, smeared with dog’s excrement and finally “washed” by Albert’s urine. This is just one of many excesses in the film that would also include scenes that depict murder, mutilations and torture, including those of children; film also features nudity, although used in quite un-erotic way, even in love scenes. However, all this content, which would test the tolerance of many viewers, is presented with the context of meticulously conceived narrative structure and great care about the form. Film was shot entirely in the studio with the help of cinematographer Sascha Vierny, production designers Ben van Os and Jan Roelfs, as well as famed fashion designer Jean Paul Gautier who designed characters’ costumes. Greenaway insisted on slow tracking shots that allowed audience to notice various details, but mainly emphasis on different colours used for different settings – red for restaurant, green for kitchen, white for toilet and blue for street. Music was provided by Greenaway’s old associate Michael Nyman, but his score, although atmospheric, wasn’t as memorable as those Nyman would compose later in his career.

The greatest asset of the film is in the cast. Of four main characters, most impressive is Albert, played with great skill by Michael Gambon who portrays one of the most despicable and irredeemably evil characters in cinema. Gambon easily outshines all other cast members. That includes Helen Mirren who nevertheless gives good performance in which she easily leads her character through various stages – battered woman, passionate lover, desperate runaway and, finally, determined avenger. Richard Bohringer is effective but not particularly memorable, and the same can be said of Alan Howard who, apart for few scenes, lacks proper chemistry with Mirren. The rest of the cast is almost unnoticeable, including some actors who would later have respectable careers like Tim Roth or Ciaran Hinds. Greenaway used to describe his film was allegory at the general state of affairs in Thatcher’s Britain and critique of crass materialism and various unsophisticated nouveau riche characters that rose through prominence during the era. Some critics, on the other hand, suspected that Greenaway’s motive was misanthropy and delightful depiction of lust, violence and barbarism under the thin cloak of civilisation and high culture. Whatever the real message was, it wasn’t as effective as it could have been because of the lack of proper humour. Greenaway also had problems with pace and too much excessive content in the first part of the film made viewers too jaded, making the finale, inspired by Jacobean plays, look rather anti-cathartic and disappointing.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover nevertheless became Greenaway’s best known work. It had less to do with film’s quality and more with controversy that arose during US distribution. When Miramax, which had US distribution rights, subjected the film to MPAA ratings board, it was branded with “X” rating. Miramax refused to apply it, arguing that “X” was associated with pornography and opted to distribute it unrated. That led to problems with film’s accessibility in some of the more conservative sections of the country. Influential critic Roger Ebert suggested that MPAA, in order to evade associating “problematic” art films like The Cook with pornography, introduce new rating for mature audiences. His suggestion was ultimately accepted and new rating – NC-17 – was born. But that rating, just like NC-17, quickly became associated with film erotica resulting in studios removing all but mildest form of film eroticism in order to get commercially viable “R” rating. while proportionally toning down similar content in films intended to get PG-13. The ultimate result was general narrowing of the scope of acceptable content and suppression of creativity in Hollywood. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover thus, ironically, entered film history books for the wrong reasons.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

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