The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover (1989)
Directed by Peter Greenaway

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * *

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Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), a brutal and garrulous gangster, dines every night with his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) and his coterie of hoodlums in the elegant La Hollandaise restaurant, which is run by an increasingly horrified chef (Richard Bohringer). There, Georgina meets the quiet proprietor of a bookstore (Alan Howard) and begins a secret relationship with him, despite the danger of her violent husband discovering her infidelity.

Not only is Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover bewitchingly beautiful, but it is also imbued with a tangible sense of both ferocity and sorrow. Intoxicated by the movie's gorgeous images and its terrible savagery, the viewer is almost certain to be left utterly stunned by the experience of watching it.


The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover is truly among the most powerful and affecting films ever to have been produced. Making use of Sacha Vierny's skillful cinematography, which infuses every scene of the movie with a sensual, breathtaking loveliness, the director has crafted such an exquisite vision that he is able to give the various acts of cruelty and desperation he depicts a feeling of timelessness. Instead of merely presenting the crimes and miseries of various petty, nasty, vacant persons, he makes manifest the deep, powerful emotions present within all human beings and allows the viewer to experience them with a remarkable intensity.


While few directors are able to give a sense of universality to the actions they relate in their films, few have Greenaway's aesthetic sensitivity. Not only is the director aware of our artistic heritage, but, by borrowing numerous visual motifs from various genres of European painting, he is able to bring this awareness to life on the screen. Here, his primary inspiration appears to be Seventeenth Century Dutch painting, as he frequently and lovingly depicts the sumptuous furnishings of the restaurant, the reveling diners, and the various items of food either being served to them or hanging in the kitchens. By so emphasizing his luxurious sets, the elegant costumes of his actors, and the loveliness of their food, which objects, in themselves, elicit an appreciation both of the richness of the physical world and of its sensual delights, Greenaway is able to remind the viewer of any such awareness previously aroused in him by his exposure to paintings by the Dutch masters.


This approach, by taking the objects of the film outside of their usual contexts, so that they can be experienced as unburdened by the interests and aversions of ordinary existence, allows the director to reveal to the viewer their innate beauty. As Greenaway relies on his luxuriant virtuosity in bringing out the loveliness things have in themselves, instead of opting for an avoidance of technique, as many less skilled artists do when striving to expose the native beauty of some entity or another, he is able to create a far more resonant, more intelligent, and more affecting awareness of that beauty than are those others. The different rooms of his film's restaurant, for example, are each dominated by a particular color, and when the characters move from room to room parts of their costumes change from the color predominant in one room to that predominant in the other. A woman's dress that is green in the kitchens will thus become red in the dining room and white in the toilets. Such devices separate the universe of the film from that of ordinary experience and allow the viewer to engage directly with the movie's content, without reference to any extrinsic entities.


The viewer's experience of this world of graceful beauty and material pleasure which Greenaway has fashioned is further intensified as a consequence of the terrifying ferocity and sorrowful desperation which seem to inhabit the whole of the film. Having infused even death and brutality with a strange elegance and loveliness, the director makes the actions he depicts even more disturbing than they would have been had they been presented as overtly loathsome. The story of cruelty, passion, and revenge that Greenaway tells is, consequently, often overwhelmingly affecting. The director is able to stir up in the moviegoer whatever emotion is appropriate to each scene with such a potency that the viewer is likely to find himself swallowed up and intoxicated by the monstrous vision being shown to him.


The movie's visual and thematic virtues do not, however, constitute the whole of its appeal. Greenaway's clever and fascinating screenplay is, in fact, integral to the success of The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover. The vile Albert Spica, in particular, has been given one absolutely captivating line after the next. He expostulates stupidly on one topic or another throughout the course of the film, but instead of boring the viewer with his endless diatribes, the character's repulsiveness so fascinates him that he remains transfixed by the experience of listening to the disgusting man.


I should also note that every member of the cast acquits himself well. The film is absolutely brilliantly acted. Even without its numerous other virtues, the movie would still be a success thanks to these performances. Michael Gambon gives his boorish, savage character such a terrible, vibrant life that the viewer is unlikely ever to forget him, and Helen Mirren's far more subtle work is able to arouse in the viewer a real sense of deep sorrow. In truth, there is not an actor in the film who does not show real talent.


The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover is consistently engaging, even entrancing. The director has created a marvelous, terrible masterpiece.

Review by Keith Allen

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