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

Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard
The wife of an oafish restaurant owner becomes bored with her husband and considers an affair with a regular patron.
This romantic crime drama may not be to everyone's taste, but The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is an audacious, powerful film.
  • Trimark Company:
  • NC-17 Rated:
  • IMDB link IMDB:
  • 06 Apr 1990 Released:
  • 13 Mar 2001 DVD Release:
  • N/A Box office:
  • Peter Greenaway Writer:
  • Peter Greenaway Director:
  • N/A Website:


Among the most disturbing films ever made.8/10

Let's say that you're an avid film-goer and you want to test your level of tolerance in terms of the type of bad taste, vile and disgusting screen images you can bear. Certain people would direct you to the zombie/cannibal movies made in Italy in the 1970s and if you took their advice you would indeed find yourself faced with some pretty unpleasant viewing material. However, such films are also very poorly made, with an emphasis on exploitation and somewhat shaky and grainy camera work. For an equally vile and disturbing film, made with considerably more skill and elegance (not to mention aspects of a Jacobean revenge play to please the intelligensia) look no further than The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. This movie is just as outrageous, nauseating and horrific as any Italian cannibal flick, but in a breathtakingly artistic way.

Michael Gambon gives a menacing portrayal as a vulgar gangster with a penchant for rich food. He is a regular customer at an elegant restaurant where he and his cronies, and his unhappy wife, wine and dine while exchanging tales of crime and debauchery. One evening his wife claps eyes on a rather geeky librarian at a nearby table; she fancies him immediately and before you know it the pair are embarking on a torrid sexual affair. Gambon discovers that his wife is having this affair so he has the librarian killed but his wife teams up with a cook from the restaurant to come up with a terrifying revenge plot.

It's impossible to reveal the details of the revenge plot without spoiling the film, but suffice to say that it is unforgettable, revolting and ingenious. Greenaway directs the film in his customary unique visual style, but the narrative is more viewer-friendly than usual in his films, making this one of his more watchable and entertaining offerings. The actors give great performances (brave performances, too, considering the explicit full frontal nudity they are asked to do). The music richly complements the scenes on screen. This film is remarkable on many levels but it's definitely adults-only stuff and even then it's not for all tastes. However, if you want something a little different and you're not afraid to be seriously disturbed, this will do nicely.
Color changes everything!10/10
The "inside story" of this film is color. Most professional reviewers, with nation-wide media exposure, missed this underlying story element entirely, as did I, until half way through my first viewing. Once I realized the colors of the costumes changed, as the characters passed from room to room, I had to go back and see it again. That's how I got hooked.

During the next viewing, I took note of the creativity and effort that went into the design and construction of the costumes, several times, as each one had to be rendered in several colors. The next time through, I noticed how the color of each room related to the activity that normally took place there, even in the outdoor sequences. With the subsequent viewing, I concentrated on the soundtrack.

From that point on, my awareness of all these elements, served to enhance my appreciation of each character and his or her contribution to the story line. That's when the much talked about "gross-out" aspects of the film seemed to diminish in their ability to shock. In fact, by that point, they seemed to fit much more naturally, although the "NC-17" rating is absolutely appropriate.

This is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears of intelligent "adult" viewers. Not to be missed.
Terrifically complex, terrifically beautiful, and just plain terrific.10/10
Here's the weird secret of this movie: you might actually enjoy it.

Peter Greenaway once commented, "film is too important to be left in the hands of story- tellers." Like almost everything Godard ever said, it's a preposterous statement that ought to be heeded.

As a filmmaker Greenaway has always delighted in puzzle-pictures; from the twin-based symmetry of "A Zed and Two Naughts" to the subliminal counting-game of "Drowning by Numbers" to the mad frames-within-frames of "Prospero's Books" his films resemble nothing so much as one of Graeme Base's wonderful children's' books ("The Eleventh Hour" and "Animalia" for instance) brought to life. Plus, of course, a great deal of nudity and assorted nastiness-- enough to get the works of one of the most original filmmakers living a rather sordid reputation.

So, once you've recovered from the visceral shock of watching "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" the first time, take a step back and watch it again. Yeah, I mean that, do it. Look at it this time as you might a painting by Heironymus Bosch: what appears to be a madman's chaotic hellscape turns out to have a precise allegorical order, and contains such a wealth of symbolism that one viewing cannot possibly be enough to absorb it all. A scene that may seem gratuitously horrific (a naked couple enclosed in a truck full of rotting meat-- probably the moment that jolted me the most) in fact reveals a medievalist's precision (Adam and Eve, cast from Paradise for the First Big Sin, are suddenly subject to the corruption of the flesh). An abstract concept is thus made perfectly and accessibly literal.

Different viewers may prefer to see this movie as religious allegory, political screed, or wry class commentary. The fact is it is all of these, and probably more. The irony of Greenaway's quote above is that he is in fact story-telling on several levels at once. (It's the same irony in the comment that "Seinfeld" was a "show about nothing" when in fact there was more going on per episode than in any other ten sitcoms. It just wasn't "simple.")

In response to criticism over the bloodshed in his movies, Godard once said "It isn't blood, it's red." Meaning: it's all part of a composition, the way color is used on a painter's canvas. It's there for a point, just like Greenaway's explicit yet elegant shocks. With that mind, watch this movie, and enjoy it. It's sharp, gruesomely witty, and as remarkable to look at as almost anything in the Met. If you can handle really thinking, you can handle this, and we all can, can't we?
The Divine Comedy10/10
Imagine the universe as a restaurant. The parking lot is the world. The kitchen is purgatory. The ladies's room is heaven. The dining room is hell. Hell is ruled over by Albert Spica, (Satan) excellently played by Michael Gobon. Dante is Michael (Alan Howard) a cataloger of French books. Beatrice, Dante's perfect woman, Georgina Spica (Helen Mirren) who is married to the devil.

In the beginning, the cook (God) in the real world is seen kicked and smeared and fed dog feces by Gabon. He is humiliated and in tears, but He endures and eventually helps to further the love between Howard and MIrren. Sex, in its pure form, is looked at as something sacred. Gabon lords over everyone in his realm with a tyrant's fist, caring nothing about anyone or anything. He wants two three things out of life¬ósuperiority to all other being, food and sex, while Mirren, as a reluctant Persephone, sneaks off to be with Howard. A couple of times Gabon even finds his way into the sanctity of heaven, but this is only short-lived.

The mood of the film is dark-black, heralded by brilliant reds or greens, and the tenor of an angelic child throughout. Every image is like a painting. Emotions creep in from all directions.

This is a film that would never, no matter what year it was produced, have won an Academy Award. It is too refined, to subtle, too sensual, too intelligent.

Watch it, rent it, buy it. It must be seen.
Recipe for Revenge.10/10
Peter Greenaway brought to the screen this visually striking tale of revenge centered on its four characters and in its 124 minutes he pulls out all the stops to make sure he not only dances over the edge of the cliff, but jumps right over and shows us the belly of the beast.

At a symbolic level, this may very well be the "thinly veiled parable against Thatcherism" that many critics have pointed at, and it's not hard to see. Taking place at a restaurant in which Albert and Georgina Spica (expertly played by Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren) dine day in, day out, always accompanied by Spica's entourage of yes-men (among them a young Tim Roth), Albert indulges in the excesses of food and berates everyone around him, including his mutely suffering wife.

The first scene -- as a matter of fact -- establishes the entire mood of the film. Albert Spica is seen outrageously humiliating a naked man outside the restaurant as the overwhelming stench of decay and the presence of wild dogs linger on. Employees from the restaurant shortly come and hose the man from the excrement he has been slathered in. What it is saying is, we are entering a world of moral and spiritual decay in which Those In Power abuse their positions to the extreme, as the observers only stand by and go on with their business.

These bystanders are the people who work at the restaurant. Among them is the Cook, played by Richard Bohringer, who faithfully serves Spica and his yes-men meal after meal and makes no opinion as they loudly banter about the difference between this dish and that dish -- essentially saying nothing worthwhile --, while all the time Georgina silently eats on, almost like a non-entity. That is, until she notices a quiet, intellectual-looking man, reading a book. This man is Michael, the Lover, played by Alan Howard, a man who does not talk but oozes intelligence. And it's this element which attracts Georgina's eye... and then more.

It's clear where Peter Greenaway is going to take us, the viewer. The scenes involving the urgent, dangerous lovemaking between Michael and Georgina are unspeakably intense, even in later scenes when they meet in the kitchen among the ever-present cooks and are getting more comfortable with themselves. Greenway's Spica becomes so completely menacing his presence overflows the screen. He commits acts of intolerable cruelty against anyone who stands in his way -- he is the Terror during the French Revolution, the Dictator from every country who has had one who will torture those who give of even a slight resistance. And once Georgina's and Michael's clandestine affair is brought to light, needless to say, all hell breaks loose and Greenway sets the stage for his horrific, stomach-turning denouement.

In Georgina, Helen Mirren has created a character that is deeply suffering, infinitely patient... and that makes her the more dangerous. That she has to go through so much pain and humiliation to make a 180 degree turn to cold, ruthless avenger makes her the ultimate heroine. Her foil to Albert -- an essentially one-note role -- also serves his undoing. Alan Howard communicates so much as well in his almost silent role, and in a revelatory note, I'll say this: their nude scene is one that is rife in sensuality and proves that one doesn't need Hollywood hard-bodies to make an erotic scene work.

THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER is not a movie for all tastes -- pun intended. However, it's one of the most avant-garde, intelligent stories that demands to be seen numerous times. I admire the lavish scenery Greenaway created for each area of the restaurant because it gives this extremely modern film a Renaissance feel and elevates its inherent symbolism. Grotesque but beautiful at the same time, it has a powerful cinematic language that has a style all its own.