The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is Peter Greenaway’s best known film and arguably his most accomplished film even if I may prefer A Zed & Two Noughts over it slightly. It made a big international splash especially in the States when it was released on an unsuspecting public where it was released unrated in art house theatres along with a heavily cut 95 minute version which was released for Blockbuster etc.
It’s a darkly comedic tale involving gangsters, sex and of course a lot of food. Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) is a gangster who has taken over a French restaurant and his gang of gangsters and him show off their oafish behaviour much to the annoyance of the staff of the restaurant. However they can’t do anything about their behaviour and accommodating Spica is his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) who starts having an affair with a bookshop owner who frequents the restaurant. Naturally torture, murder, deceit and sex all play a large role in the film and as visual with Greenaway it’s an orgy which bleeds both the artistic with the sexual.
Helen Mirren who I normally find extremely overrated gives arguably her career best performance here, she oozes sophistication but also sexual power. Gambon is having an absolute ball here where he just literally at times just lets it all hang out, he is totally monster here. Tim Roth who was just starting to get some acclaim after some exceptional early roles in The Hit and Made in Britain plays a dim-witted but vicious part of Spica’s gang. Ian Dury even has a rare acting appearance here as one of the rival gangsters.
Greenaway who can certainly write a fine screenplay and this is certainly his most accomplished screenplay by far but he is first and foremost a visual filmmaker. The set design has an air of artificially which is sometime I love and I always much prefer an artificial design over a gritty location shoot, even though that’s can be great too. Greenaway is very much a failed painter who turned to cinema so every single shot looks like a painting.
Sacha Vierny’s photography includes these extraordinary tracking shots throughout the film, he is one of the master cinematographers he cut his teeth on much of the best European films of the ’60s and ’70s. Vierny would work with Greenaway on all his best work and when they stopped collaborating it really marked a steep decline in the quality of Greenaway’s films even though Greenaway was already going up his own ass at that point.
Jean-Paul Gaultier who of course is a legendary fashion designer made his debut here as a costume designer for film and it’s his typically style retro but futuristic which lends to the timeless quality of the film. He of course would do fantastic work in the ’90s on The Fifth Element and The City of Lost Children. The film even almost has a science fiction quality, it has this dystopian feel due to the nature of the story and the aesthetic, Greenaway had already played around with science fiction a little bit and surrealism in some earlier films as well.
Overall The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover remains a testament to an artist at the top of his powers. The performances are exceptions and the film is designed within an inch of the life. It’s perverse to the extreme with its gallows humour and remains a bona-fide cult classic which makes its UK Blu-Ray debut here, only shame is there are no special features included.