Catching Up with the Classics: THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, & HER LOVER (1989)

Julian’s first experience with Peter Greenaway’s visual feast isn’t one he’ll forget anytime soon

Film 62 of 115: THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, & HER LOVER (1989)

I knew when starting this project I needed to break into the work of Peter Greenaway. Like fellow British filmmakers like Mike Leigh or Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, Greenaway felt to me like a director whose reputation and style preceded him before any formal experience with his work, a name spoken with as much revulsion as admiration. With its irresistible-bar-none title, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover stood out like a beckoning siren — I’d read it was the most accessible of Greenaway’s work, without sparing any of the provocation that my friends had come to love and expect of the writer-director. Despite everything I’d heard, I don’t think either my wife or I could’ve been prepared for what this movie had in store for us. It’s a thing of beauty to be introduced to a director whose mark is so immediately felt — where style and story and emotional impact feel indivisible from frame one. That was The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover — a sumptuous blend of style, sustenance, and sensuality.

Unfurling over several extended scenes demarcated with the daily specials of restaurant La Hollandais, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover tracks the gradual liberation of Georgina (Helen Mirren), the endlessly tormented wife of loathsome gangster and joint owner Albert Spica (Michael Gambon). Georgina is at once Spica’s trophy wife and public punching bag, subjected to a constant barrage of physical and mental assaults by her vile husband — all of which are encouraged or allowed by his motley crew of associates. But despite her imprisonment, Georgina finds refuge in the delicacies which Spica’s palate cannot stand, all lovingly prepared by La Hollandais’ head chef Richard (Richard Bohringer). Eventually, Georgina finds a culinary and emotional oasis in Michael (Alan Howard), a quiet bookkeeper who proves just as able to endure Spica’s perverse attacks. With Richard’s help, Georgina and Michael begin an affair in the restaurant between courses — all under Spica’s nose.

The Cook, the Thief, the Wife, and her Lover isn’t afraid to be a lot. Greenaway’s film dollies through elaborate tableaux of sets dominated by primary colors — a blue parking lot, a green kitchen, a red dining hall, a white bathroom — with its characters’ Gauthier and Dior costumes miraculously changing colors to match their surroundings as they pass to and fro. Chaotic classical strings and trumpets give the appearance of formality tinged with sleaze and more base elements — putting on aural airs. There’s gorgeous displays of food, some of which fall into rot and decay, most of which are destroyed in Spica’s inhuman outbursts of rage. It’s a rigorously designed world, full of formal, painterly control that threatens to swallow its characters whole course by course.

Completing this sweeping oppression is Michael Gambon’s Spica, a total Dunning-Kruger of taste. With his constant verbal vomit and crude chastising over his cohorts’ manners, he’s the perfect antagonist in this film not because he’s got zero good taste, but because Spica considers himself to be the totalitarian end-all-be-all of what good taste actually is. To Spica, taste means wealth, authority, and status — akin to how he treats Georgina, beauty is something to be commodified and possessed in absolutes rather than appreciated for its nuance and subtleties.

Enter Georgina. No matter how lavish or beautiful the set, Greenaway always constructs his frame to focus on Helen Mirren’s tortured face. Like a drowning person breaking the water’s surface, Georgina’s anguish is always front and center, always searching for a quick escape in a dish or multicolored cigarette. In the film’s barrage of sound and color, it’s hard not to latch onto Georgina as a life raft even when she’s searching for the same escape and safety herself. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, her face fills the frame as she recounts the fleeting moments she’s tried to leave Spica–only to find herself reluctantly or forcefully pulled back into his controlling orbit.

She finds it in what Spica rejects — the dishes that chef Richard creates that require a far more nuanced, delicate palate. There’s an oasis in Richard’s food not because the food is world-class and worth praise on its own — but because their particular appeal is something Spica can’t comprehend. It’s something, for all of his violent blustering rage, that Spica can’t touch. Spica recognizes this, and destroys Georgina’s exclusive dishes in childish revenge, but depriving Georgina of this one instance of escape doesn’t bring him any closer toward it himself.

Georgina soon finds further deliverance in Michael — a quiet bookseller with an equal appreciation for Richard’s creations. They’re wordlessly drawn to each other, escaping for brief affairs in La Hollandais’ restroom or stockrooms, all while Spica’s totally oblivious. Michael is everything Spica isn’t in so many ways. He’s insular, reserved, yet passionate about literature and history — he’s one to listen and take in the world rather than boisterously proclaim his own opinions and call them fact. Georgina and Michael’s natural appreciation for food and beauty naturally magnetically draws them to each other — even before they know each other’s names, they can’t help but connect.

Despite being on the periphery for much of the film, Richard manages to be the character who facilitates much of Georgina and Michael’s desires. He finds them new places to escape to in the restaurant, gives them new dishes to try…he admits later he spies on them, admiring how they’ve fallen for each other. While this is a voyeur’s act, it’s not unlike his normal duties as a chef — providing experiences to make people happy that he doesn’t engage in himself. He’s a Friar Lawrence of the kitchen — a fellow lover of love, expressing his own sensuality through selfless acts that are a beauty of their own.

This sensuous triad relationship between Georgina, Michael, and Richard — as well as of love, food, and art — expresses the values at the core of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover that help make it such an immediately memorable experience. Greenaway’s film unwaveringly believes that it’s a sacred thing to find beauty and love in art or another human being — and that those who believe in love, empathy, or just common decency will naturally find and protect each other from whatever evil the world can inflict. Aside from Michael and Richard, everyone’s clothes change color to whatever room they’re in — only they, and eventually Georgina, are able to show their true colors.

And damn, if the evil in Spica can’t stand that with every fiber of his being — causing an atrocious act that requires Georgina and Richard to react with equal ferocity. The ending of this film is such a pitch-perfect culmination of Greenaway’s cornucopia of shocking sensation and sincerity, a triumphant flamethrower in the face of cruelty and terrible taste. While I’d been somewhat prepared for what was going to happen, in no way was it spoiled — with the context of the film, the moment aged like fine wine.

If my glowing reaction to The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover is any indication, I can only imagine what Greenaway has in store for future courses.

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