“…part of him wondered how something could be so ugly and so beautiful and part of him just plain jazzed on it.”
The above line, from James Ellroy's novel L. A. Confidential, sums up my feelings for The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover. It's a film that shows ugliness both moral (the titular Thief) and physical (brutal violence, sexual abuse, rotting meat) and juxtaposes the ugliness with lush cinematography, gorgeous sets, wonderful acting, and beautiful music.
At La Hollandaise restaurant, Richard the cook (dignified Richard Bohringer) and all the restaurant guests and staff suffer the presence of Albert Spica the thief (Michael Gambon's ferocious, vulgar performance will be a shock to those who only know him as Dumbledore from the last two Harry Potter movies). Albert is loud, crude, and violence-prone, but his hold over Richard (financial, it's implied) is such that he is able to do what he wants while on the restaurant premises. This includes abusing other patrons both verbally and physically – in the film's notorious opening sequence, he forces another restaurant owner to eat dog shit.
But the person who suffers most at Albert's hands is his wife Georgina (the always fantastic Helen Mirren). Georgina is a kind-hearted, intelligent woman - unlike Albert, she can actually pronounce the French menu items - who's been cowed into terrified submission by years of Albert's abuse. But one evening Georgina spots a man nearby quietly reading a book while enjoying dinner. The two make eye contact, and before the next course is served they are making love in the women's restroom. Their affair is carried on in the restaurant, under Albert's nose, aided and abetted by the cook…until Albert finds out.
Suffice to say that by the end of the film, contrary to the old Klingon proverb, revenge is not a dish best served cold. It should be hot, with a fine wine accompanying it.
Cook/Thief/Wife/Lover makes for a strange viewing experience. It is at times an incredibly beautiful film – it's a treat to watch the costumes change color as the characters proceed from outside the restaurant (blue), to the kitchen (green), into the dining room (red), and finally to the bathroom (white). The outfits worn by Albert's entourage (costumes are by Jean-Paul Gaultier) mimic those in the mural that dominates the wall in the restaurant. The lush cinematography makes beauty of unlikely things – Georgina and her lover at one point frolic in a room full of hanging game birds and feathers. The music is equally lovely, though some may wish for less of the boy soprano. Michael Nyman's score, based on a piece written for a funeral, drives the film and perfectly mirrors is excessive and downbeat side, with a hint of black humor.
It's at times a funny film, though director Peter Greenaway never lets us laugh for very long. A scene when Georgina finally stands up to her husband with a blackly comical taunt (“Being infertile makes me a safe bet for a good screw”) gives us an instant to savor her hard-won victory before she's punched in the stomach and brutally manhandled into Albert's car. The film's violence, though not overtly gory, is vicious and painful to watch. When I saw it in the theater, once scene made me turn away, and out of the corner of my eye I saw many others in the audience turning away. It's also not a film to watch with Grandma, with lots of vulgar language, extended scenes with full-frontal nudity, and some repulsive imagery (the van full of rotten meat is particularly memorable).
None of this would work if it were not for the actors, who are all brilliant. Richard Bohringer as the cook is every artist who's had to work an awful day job or suffer an insufferable patron for the sake of his art. Michael Gambon is downright frightening as the thief – Albert knows no boundaries and by the end even his fellow criminals are disgusted by his behavior. Helen Mirren takes what could have been a one-dimensional character of the straying wife and shows us Georgina as a woman desperate for not just for physical comfort but for safety and peace. Alan Howard as the lover has the most difficult role – his character doesn't even speak for the first third of the film (he's shushed by the silence-cherishing Georgina ), and what makes him most attractive to Georgina are his gentleness and bookishness. Yet he makes us understand why Georgina soon falls in love with him, and why she must take a terrible revenge for him. And we can't forget Tim Roth, who would later appear in some of Quentin Tarantino's films, as Mitchell, the most odious of Albert's henchmen.
Cook/Thief/Wife/Lover has been called everything from political satire to shameless pornography. I see it as a nice fable of revenge, and just desserts.
Sadly, the DVD only has two trailers as the extras. Still, it's a nice, uncut transfer (don't even bother with R-rated cuts that have circulated on VHS and laserdisc in the past) and the movie is a good introduction to a difficult director whose work is often difficult to see if you're restricted to the local multiplex.
*Currently out of print