“The clever cook puts unlikely things together” – The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover (DVD Review)

Let’s get this out of the way, the title is not some kind of post-modern, or contrarily clever title hiding the true premise of the film. The film is pretty much what the title says, you might even guess what the plot is from the title’s hint. What you might not be able to guess is just how savagely oppressive the film is, yet still having an art-house film flair to it.

The Thief: Albert (played by Michael Gambon of Dumbledore fame) is a deplorable and despotic leader of a gang, he is a man with no understanding of personal space, throwing massive tantrums, hurling objects at people while cursing, yet he is an articulate brute who fancies himself as some great leader and of great taste for gourmet. You’ll be seeing a lot of food as the film takes place in the French restaurant Albert owns and frequents over a number of days.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

This is where The Cook; Richard comes in as the head chef who despite making incredible dishes his work seems to be undone by Albert’s dreadful behaviour to the customers. Also Albert’s wife Georgina, a woman who utterly despises Albert who gets dragged along, and is even bullied and mocked by him. On one night the usually depressed and bitter Georgina eyes Michael, an unassuming man eating dinner by himself reading his books, and it doesn’t take long before the two shag in the ladies room, and over the next few days (with Richard’s subterfuge) on top of various kitchen worktops.

I’ll leave it to you to figure out the rest of the plot, Georgina and Michael have sex right under Albert’s nose, at some point they get found out, Albert proceeds to wreak things up and everything goes horribly wrong. The film wants to bring a theatre scale story onto film, giving way to a display of raw acting talent, yet no word I write can prepare anyone for the graphic imagery in the film, the kind that show how brave the cast really are.

There’s a character who gets covered in some very convincing poo, there’s lots of nude shots of Helen Mirren and Alan Howard as the Wife and Lover, it’s the kind of stuff that even modern day actors wouldn’t be up for whether or not you agree how necessary the nudity is, at the very least this film makes a strong, emotional case for it. But this stuff isn’t anything too shocking, at the time of the film’s original release the nudity was a very racy topic, nowadays I would assume people are way less sensitive about this stuff. What’s more shocking is the anger and brutality in many of Michael Gambon scenes, there are shots where you would think the other actors are physically being beaten as Albert thrusts kitchenware at people and throwing cooking pots around, and it’s this energy the film seems to keep up for most of the running time, never letting up. This kind of rawness in the performance, and in tone and style are what make the film and especially make the ending which has some spectacular make-up special effects in it.

Dishwasher boy

There was a lot to enjoy about the film, to the acting, the moody score, to the way that each set was given an individual colour palette, giving it some style and possibly some thematic tonal elements to the scenes. What got in the way was how the set design, costuming and even the set up of character actions felt more like a musical or play, especially when the dishwasher boy starts singing when I would rather he shut up. It was like there was a barrier that kept breaking my immersion throughout the film, where I could notice the seam between a real place and the set, then Gambon comes back being brilliantly vile to everyone then I’m back on board with the film. This is definitely a film you need to be in the mood for, but also deserving of admiration in its audacious presentation.

4/5

Dir: Peter Greenaway
Scr: Peter Greenaway
Cast: Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard, Tim Roth, Ciarán Hinds, Gary Olsen, Ewan Stewart, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Ron Cook, Liz Smith, Emer Gillespie, Janet Henfrey, Arnie Breeveld, Tony Alleff, Paul Russell, Alex Kingston
Prd: Kees Kasander, Pascale Dauman, Daniel Toscan Du Plantier, Denis Wigman
DOP: Sacha Vierny
Music: Michael Nyman
Year: 1989
Run Time: 124 mins

 

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover is available on Blu-Ray and DVD now.