Directed by Peter Greenaway
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & her Lover is a theatrical movie which takes place almost entirely within the large, ornate London restaurant owned by mobster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon, aka Albus Dumbledore). He eats there every night with his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) and a group of his thugs (led by one played by Tim Roth), though no night seems to pass without him causing a scene and making life hard for his chef, Richard (Richard Bohringer). Often times, it seems, one of the sudden targets of his drunken attacks is a silent patron named Michael (Alan Howard), the man he doesn’t realize is sleeping with his wife.
This doesn’t start until after the film begins. We see Michael and Georgina silently catch each other’s eye, then we watch the awkward but passionate first steps of their quiet affair, always, like everything, within the confines of the restaurant. They are nearly found out in the bathroom before they conduct their repeated rendezvouses in the back rooms of the kitchen, protected by the apparently very accommodating chef and his staff.
Their affair will become almost routine but never any less hot and heavy. At one point Georgina is proud to show him the steps she has taken to speed up the disrobing process and ensure they don’t get caught.
They will get caught eventually, of course, and the danger is established not just by Georgina’s warnings about her husband but also by the first scene of the film in which Albert and his thugs strip a man naked and force him to eat literal sh*t. It’s quite the tone setter, and it’s this ugliness which pervades every moment of the film.
That’s not to say it isn’t beautiful, because it is, but there’s something dirty about every aspect of this film. Even when it is aesthetically captivating, the harsh red dining room feels like it is just the former site of a massacre that was hastily cleaned up with bleach and then covered with long curtains. The smell of whatever happened, or what is continuing to happen, lingers.
And at the same time it’s so shamelessly tender. It’s melodramatic really, with visually arresting imagery of Georgina and Michael in all kinds of naked, loving embraces alongside soon to be cooked pheasants and the murky combination of all colors of lighting. At any given moment, it seems, the light from one room cuts right into the next, and they are always colors opposite each other on the color wheel.
The sterile whites of the bathroom receive rectangles of bright red whenever the doors open, and the sepia toned kitchen backrooms are sliced into by the swampy greens of the “Spica” name which was to be attached to the side of the restaurant, should they ever work properly.
This use of light, much like with everything in the film, feels stripped from a theater stage. The sets are large to the point of absurdity, and the camera so often dollies left and right, drawing attention to the actual size of the sets, hiding little within a cut. These spaces are big and tangible, able to be explored and marched through, similar to the effect of the long takes through the halls of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.
So the film is quite grand, albeit in a purposefully constructed way. Everything is so large but also so artificial. Even what we glimpse of the world outside of the restaurant, the back lot overrun by street dogs and truck freezers full of decaying meat, is made to seem fake. We open the film in this space, and it took me a moment to figure out that this was supposed to be “outside,” as opposed to the interior of a large warehouse.
And the storyline backs up this sense of grand artifice. As the film unfolds and varying degrees of revenge are taken, the film begins to feel like a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s some sort of parable, a story so heightened, so extreme and so visceral and demanding of gut reactions that it’s meant to provoke. I’ve read that it might have to do with 80’s era politics or capitalism or something else entirely. It’s definitely some kind of warning, a bit of a dark fairytale that in its tragic ends and extreme character decisions portends something grim happening, unless it’s already happened.
And it’s all quite wonderful, even if it is disturbing. It’s as if that by the time you’ve reached the end, the darkness unfolds in a safe space. This environment is so clearly separate from the rest of world, and thus the rules they abide by here matter not so much in our world. It is thus symbolic or metaphorical or something just as abstract.
It’s all quite beautiful and dirty at once, some kind of strange duality in which both qualities are intertwined, as if the highs Georgina experiences are intrinsically tied to the horrors she endures.
Up Next: Godzilla (1954), Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019), The Only Son (1936)