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Arguably the masterpiece of England’s Peter Greenaway, an unrestrained blast of grossness and bad behavior that was and remains a repellant yet undeniably beautiful mutant of a movie.

The Package
     In 1989 Peter Greenaway was already an experienced filmmaker with five features and over 30 short films to his credit, yet it was THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, AND HER LOVER that really put him on the international map. Starring British acting luminaries like THE SINGING DETECTIVE’S Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren and Tim Roth, and also the distinguished French actor Richard Bohringer in his first English language role, THE COOK… was released in the U.S. by Miramax, whose then-chairman Harvey Weinstein reportedly acquired the film after witnessing several disgusted patrons walk out during a festival screening.
     The film was notorious in its day for being released unrated in the U.S. in the Spring of 1990, and is now viewed as one of the primary instigators of the NC-17 rating. No less than four versions were released to VHS in the 90s: letterboxed and un-letterboxed NC-17 rated versions, and letterboxed and non-letterboxed R rated versions shorn of over nine minutes of saucy footage.

The Story
     The setting is Le Hollandais, an upscale restaurant owned by the amoral gangster Albert. The insanity begins one night when Albert and his goons brutalize a man and smear his body with excrement outside the restaurant. Inside Albert’s harried wife Georgina becomes infatuated with fellow diner Michael, a scholarly gent who in appearance and temperament is the opposite of Albert.
     Georgina and Michael have an impulsive tryst in the ladies room, and on the following nights, with the help of the head cook and his staff, they have sex in the back room of the restaurant kitchen (because, according to Georgina, Alfred would never believe they’d fuck right under his nose). Offsetting Georgina and Michael’s trysts is Albert’s obnoxious behavior, which includes insulting and humiliating his subordinates, harassing restroom patrons, beating up Georgina in plain view of other diners, and running over dogs in the parking lot.
     But then the girlfriend of one of Albert’s goons spies Georgina and Michael having sex, and informs Albert. He goes mad, but Georgina and Michael manage to elude his wrath by stowing away in a truck filled with rotting animal carcasses. This doesn’t stop Albert and co. from breaking into Michael’s home, where the they smother him to death by stuffing pages of his favorite book down his throat. Upon discovering Michael’s corpse Georgina becomes determined to get revenge on Albert, and does so in a depraved gambit involving cooking, coercion and cannibalism.

The Direction
     In the manner of most Peter Greenaway films, THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, AND HER LOVER is highly stylized and theatrical, with a heavy emphasis on visual design. The film’s true stars, I’d argue, are cinematographer Sacha Vierny, whose gorgeous lighting effectively offsets all the vile behavior (which includes vomiting, a fork stabbing and child abuse in addition to the outrages described above), and production designers Ben van Os and Jan Roelfs, who provide gorgeous color coordinated scenery. The opulent-bordering-on avant-garde costume design of Jean Paul Gautier also deserves mention, as does the spare, haunting music by Michael Nyman. Appropriately for a film concerned primarily with eating, Greenaway and his collaborators have created a veritable feast for the senses.
     This is the easiest of Greenaway’s films to understand. Its roots are in Jacobean drama, in which, in the output of Thomas Middleton, John Webster and others, revenge and murder were constants. Yet it also has a real life component in the notorious Kray brothers, a pair of criminals who terrorized London in the 1950s and 60s (and were immortalized in the 1990 movie THE KRAYS) through acts of violence and intimidation similar to those perpetrated by Albert in this movie. Others claim the film is symbolic of the rule of the UK’s late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, with Georgina representing Britannia and Albert the conservative policies of Miss Thatcher. Whatever the correct interpretation may be, it’s a fact that THE COOK, THE THIEF… has a fire and urgency missing from Greenaway’s other, more cerebral films.
     The acting also is of a much higher caliber than that of most Greenaway productions (whose characters too often register as symbolic abstractions rather than human beings). Michael Gambon’s sadistic yet lovesick Albert is among the screen’s most perfectly vile villains, while Helen Mirren’s performance is one of her finest, a perfectly calibrated depiction of cowed victimization, uncontrolled lust and righteous fury.

Vital Statistics

Allarts Cook Ltd./Erato Films/Films Inc.

Director: Peter Greenaway
Producer: Kees Kasander
Screenplay: Peter Greenaway
Cinematography: Sacha Vierny
Editing: John Wilson
Cast: Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard, Tim Roth, Liz Smith, Ciaran Hinds, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Ian Dury, Bob Goody