Released during the last gasp in the decade of excess – an era when the film world was dominated by flag-waving action films and endless cycles of box-office-friendly franchises – Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” (1989) may seem like the odd man out when it comes to notable arthouse films of the time. Though it had a fairly successful theatrical run thanks to the then-fledgling studio Miramax, Greenaway’s stunning mixture of black comedy, social satire and sheer depravity was simply too much for most viewers and all but disappeared on home video. Too bad, since it’s easily one of the most accomplished and memorable films released by that studio to date and a perfect example of how even the most objectionable material can be crafted into genuine art.
The plot of “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” is fairly unremarkable: At a posh big-city restaurant, the aging wife (Helen Mirren, “The Queen”) of an oafish and abusive gangster (Michael Gambon, “Gosford Park”) begins an illicit affair with a humble bookkeeper (Alan Howard, “David Copperfield”) while a French cook (Richard Bohringer, “Diva”) frantically tries to keep his unruly guests under control.
Sounds straightforward, right? Well, this is a Greenaway film, which means any semblance of plot is ultimately peripheral, instead allowing the infamous British director of such films as “Drowning by Numbers” (1988) and “The Pillow Book” (1996) to indulge in some of his customary bouts of twisted humor, grotesque imagery and visual trickery. Figuring into the plot’s wire-thin framework are such varied delights as cannibalism, violence with silverware, rampant (and explicit) nudity on the part of its middle-aged actors and – last but by no means least – sex in a meat locker. This isn’t your typical romantic drama, folks.
Though it has been argued that the restaurant – which, apart from a few fleeting scenes, serves as the setting for the entire picture – is actually an allegory for Margaret Thatcher-era Great Britain, it’s really the film’s aesthetic and dramatic qualities that serve as the focus of Greenaway’s vision. From the first frame, the film is a feast for the eyes, brimming with vibrant colors and eye-catching sets and costumes. But that’s not to say these elements overshadow the performances, which are uniformly outstanding and heighten the tragic and comic aspects of the storyline. Mirren and Gambon are especially impressive, delivering Greenaway’s acidic dialogue with gusto and fusing their shared scenes with the sort of sexual and comic tension that characterizes the film as a whole.
Another Greenaway trademark is his fascination with cinematic “games.” His earlier film, “Drowning by Numbers,” contains the numbers one through 99 interspersed, in order, throughout the entire film. In “The Cook,” the game is subtler but equally memorable: Characters’ costumes change colors from shot to shot to match the colors of the sets. It’s a classic Greenaway tactic that pulls the viewer into the film even if he is tempted to turn away from the more repulsive events on display.
“The Cook” also benefits from a haunting score by Greenaway’s regular composer, Michael Nyman, which turns the film’s disturbing and unforgettable climax into a true tour-de-force.
Few films from the ’80s are more deserving of rediscovery than this one. Not only is it Greenaway’s best film, but it’s also one of the finest films to come out of Britain since – well, since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.