The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
(France/U.K., 1989)

It's probably fair to say that Peter Greenaway has a rather twisted view of life. The same statement can be said of many top directors (David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, the Coen Brothers. . . ). Greenaway's career has been defined by strange movies, but none is more offbeat and bizarre than The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. The first time I saw this movie, some time in the early '90s, I was astounded - not only by the subject matter, but by the amazing set design and the high quality of the acting. Drenched in creepy, black humor and biting satire, this story of love, lust, betrayal, treachery, and gastronomical excess stuck with me not for hours or days after I saw it, but for weeks. The movie defies every convention it encounters, and does so with verve. A gleeful attack on decency and morality, the movie became one of the first films to earn an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, and it definitely earns the certification. My only warning - watching The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover requires a strong stomach, and it's probably best not viewed immediately before (or after) a big meal.

Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Roughly two-thirds of the film takes place inside the fine French restaurant, Le Hollandais. With a dungeon-like kitchen that looks like it was snatched out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, this is a fantastically bizarre place to eat dinner. The chef, Richard (French actor Richard Bohringer), is a gastronomical genius who cares as much for the artistry of a meal as for its taste. Le Hollandais' owner, an uncouth rogue by the name of Albert (Michael Gambon), visits the restaurant nightly in the company of his wife, Georgina (Helen Mirren), and a flock of toadies. There, sitting in the center of Le Hollandais' dining room, at the biggest table, Albert holds court, spouting often-absurd discourses about any subject he can think of. But, while he's talking, his neglected wife catches the eye of a nearby diner (Alan Howard), and soon those two sneak away for a tryst in the Ladies' Room.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a wildly exuberant, bitingly satirical examination of excess, bad taste, and great acting. Taboos? If director Peter Greenaway has any, you can't tell by this film. There are times when Greenaway's vision becomes excessively graphic, and this goes beyond just sex and violence (although there's a fair amount of both). The word "gross" was coined for this kind of stuff. One message that Greenaway clearly conveys is the association between two of life's most obvious sensual pleasures: eating and sex. He litters this picture with the brutal and the grotesque -- including murder, covering someone with excrement, and cannibalism. The Cook is always as visceral as it is visual. Then there's the ending, which contradicts the saying that revenge is a dish best served cold. In this case, it's warm, and very, very appropriate.

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