Minding the Gap: The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover

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June 16, 2011 by abbyo

Despite the fact that Netflix has a few issues they need to work out with their service (namely, their disappointing partnership with the Criterion Collection), they are a fabulous source for movies you can’t find anywhere else. Every once in a while, they use their online streaming service to bring a tough-to-find gem to larger audiences, giving subscribers a rare opportunity to expose themselves to something really special. The addition of Peter Greenaway’s movie “The Cook, the Thief His Wife and Her Lover” to their streaming selection, is a great move, and one that’s giving them a lifetime pass from me.  It’s the blind spot that I’ve been the most anxious to correct, since the movie has a pretty wild reputation, and it’s immensely difficult to find on DVD.

“The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” tells the sordid tale of London gangster Albert (Michael Gambon), who’s just bought an upscale French restaurant. He drags his lackeys and his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) to dinner night after night, talking loud BS about food, bullying his dining companions and generally disrupting the other diners. Georgina, sick of her husband’s abuse and public displays of bad manners, starts an affair with fellow diner Michael (Alan Howard) right under Albert’s nose, seemingly out of spite. As you might expect, the two lovers become emotionally attached, Albert finds out and tragedy follows, culminating in a final scene of cold revenge that’s icky, but so perfectly staged and dramatically satisfying that it sent chills down my spine.

“Thief” is known as kind of a shocker. And it’s true; it does contain some difficult material. Among the images Greenaway incorporates:

  • Full-frontal nudity (male and female)
  • Acts of violent abuse
  • Force-feeding of items that aren’t meant for eating (notably buttons and sheets of paper)
  • Cannibalism (only once, but it’s a doozy)
  • An unpleasant opening scene involving poo

While this stuff is pretty salacious, what people don’t talk about quite as much is that the movie is one of the most beautifully shot and stylized you’ll see anywhere, and it’s done in a strikingly unique way. All you budding filmmakers out there, take note: If you want a sure-fire way to glue your audience to the screen, even when (especially when) what you’re showing is controversial, disturbing or hard to watch, make it look as gorgeous as possible. Despite that I knew exactly what I was seeing, I never once felt I was watching something grossly inappropriate (pretty impressive, given the nasty elements mentioned above). Greenaway handles the film’s provocative material with amazing taste. Every frame looks like a painting, and I mean that in the most literal sense. Witness:

It doesn’t matter if the scene is a dinner table or a tryst in the kitchen pantry, it all looks gorgeous.

Gambon is pitch-perfect as Albert, in a performance that’s both frustrating and funny. He’s crass, but wants to look like he’s got taste. He speaks at length about various culinary processes he doesn’t really understand (often with his mouth full). He’s the kind of diner who thinks bold, edgy cuisine is ham with pineapples. Mirren, for her part, is good too, although hers isn’t quite as raucous and attention-grabbing a role as Gambon’s. They’re supported by an impressive ensemble that includes Ciaran Hinds and Tim Roth, both at early stages in their illustrious careers. Roth, in particular, gives a wonderfully physical performance that has him doing everything from vomiting down his shirt to jumping on a table like a spider monkey.

But as good as the acting is, what really stands out is the film’s design. “Thief” begins and ends with curtains, as though we’re watching a play, a feeling supported by huge, lavish sets that feel like a cross between a theatrical production and a Rembrandt painting. The amazingly structured costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier change color from scene to scene, depending on the location and the lighting (green in the kitchen, red in the dining room, white in the bathroom). Scenes that Greenaway wants to give a particular artistic highlight are shot with a kind of flattened perspective (the dinner table scenes, for instance, frequently have people sitting on only one side of the table).

Of course, that’s all well and good, until you come to question the meaning of the film itself. It looks good, and tells a good story, sure, but is there an anchor of meaning that grounds the movie? Given its characters and conclusion, it feels very much like a more explicitly violent version of a play like “The Duchess of Malfi,” which reflected and responded to historical occurrences, class and religious beliefs held at the time it was written. In that same vein, “Thief” was seen at the time of its release as an enraged response to the politics of greed that characterized the 1980s, particularly those of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and those who benefited from her policies. Roger Ebert does a much better job of explaining it than I can, I’ll direct you to his insightful review.

“The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” is a strange cocktail of a movie. It’s difficult to watch, but glorious to look at. It’s troubling and angry, but also bold and really gutsy. It’s nasty, but done with impressive taste. It’s a movie that feels important, and I suspect that it would even if you’d never heard of it or its director. It’s an experience that may not sit well with the viewer, but it’s a movie that everyone should see at least once, if only for the conversations it will stir up afterward. Now, thanks to Netflix, you finally can.

Random observations:

  • I’ve never seen a movie heavily involving food that made the food look so unappetizing. Maybe it was the extensive variations of gelatin served, maybe it was that the food was abused about as often as it was consumed. I don’t know. All I’m saying is, if I had my pick of expensive restaurants to eat at, Le Hollandais would not be my first choice.
  • A suggestion: When I first watched this movie, I wasn’t aware of its political motivations— the result of a double handicap of not having experienced Thatcherite England and not being familiar with Greenaway’s filmography. I’d suggest reading the Roger Ebert review I linked above before watching “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” for a little historical and cultural context, and also because Roger Ebert is just a fantastic writer.
  • British TV nerds, take note: In addition to Hinds and Roth featuring in the supporting cast, the ensemble also includes great British “That Guys” Roger Lloyd Pack and Ron Cook, as well as musician Ian Dury (of the band The Blockheads). There’s also a fun little appearance from a young Alex Kingston (of “Doctor Who”). See if you can spot her.
  • I’m fairly certain that the Japanese “Iron Chef” show borrowed its “judgement” music from Michael Nyman’s excellent score. 
  • Finally: This is a movie that is an absolutely perfect candidate for the Criterion Collection. As I mentioned earlier, it’s really tough to find on DVD, and could really benefit from some nice supplements that put it into cultural perspective. I understand it has something to do with Criterion not being able to get the rights. So, Harvey Weinstein, I am calling you out.  Get your rear in gear and allow this movie the video release it deserves.

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