A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989)

I have to imagine some naive young person whose idea of outrageous filmmaking extends no further than the work of David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino, and who knows Helen Mirren only as the Oscar winner for The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006) and as a dame of the British Empire, coming across The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. It's a full-fledged assault on conventional movies, so provocative that it feels like it was made a decade or so earlier, when filmmakers were testing the limits, and not in the comparatively timid 1980s. The title itself sounds like the setup for a dirty joke, but writer-director Peter Greenaway delivers much more than that. The Cook (Richard Bohringer) runs the kitchen at a fancy restaurant that has been taken over by the Thief (Michael Gambon) and his retinue of thugs, who make a mess of things every night. Meanwhile, the Thief's Wife (Mirren) is carrying on an affair with her bookstore-owner Lover (Alan Howard) in every nook and cranny of the restaurant they can find. When the Thief finds out, the lovers hide from him at the book depository, but the Thief finds and murders him by stuffing pages from books down his throat. Eventually, the Wife, with the culinary assistance of the Cook, takes revenge in a most unappetizing way. The whole thing is played in the most over-the-top fashion imaginable, but the skill and daring of the actors makes it compelling. Gambon makes the Thief so colossally vulgar that we laugh almost as much as we cringe. Mirren and Howard are naked for great stretches of the film, but the effect is less erotic than you might think; instead, it emphasizes their vulnerability. Add to that the extraordinary production design of Ben van Os and Jan Roelfs, the sometimes kinky costume design by Jean-Paul Gaultier, the cinematography of Sacha Vierny, and the musical score by Michael Nyman, and what you have is undeniably a work of art -- perverse and sometimes extremely unpleasant, but decidedly unforgettable.

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