The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1990)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

criterion logoTaking aim at the neo-conservative values that dominated Britain through the 1980s, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover skewers the decadence and small-mindedness of the era with its visually sumptuous, overtly theatrical tale of food, sex, murder, and revenge.  Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) is a gangster and cultural dilettante holding court nightly at a gourmet restaurant before his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) and his coterie of thugs, unaware that Georgina is carrying on an adulterous affair with a bookish diner one table over.  When Albert discovers the infidelity, his brutal action inspires Georgina to a gastronomic vengeance even more shocking and ghastly that Albert can imagine.  Writer-director Peter Greenaway presents a lavish cinematic feast steeped in the conventions of 16th century British revenge tragedy, inspired by 17th century Dutch painting, and voicing his harsh dissent over the social, political and cultural failures of Thatcherite Britain.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration of the film’s original 124 minute version, approved by writer-director Peter Greenaway, with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary by Greenaway
  • The Art of Revenge, a new video piece with Greenaway on the influences of art and theater in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
  • New interviews with cast members Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Richard Bohringer, and Tim Roth
  • New interview with fashion designer Jean-Paul Gautier on the film’s costumes
  • Hubert Bals Handshake, Greenaway’s 1989 short film
  • “New Possibilities: Cinema is Dead, Long Live Cinema” and “Nine Classic Paintings Revisited,” two 2010 lectures by Greenaway at UC Berkeley
  • Behind the scenes footage
  • Trailers
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring new essays by film scholars Tony Rayns, Douglas Keesey, and Ruth Johnston

Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) is a brutal, garrulous, and overbearing gangster who lords his egotism nightly over the staff and patrons of Le Hollandais, a high-class, gourmet restaurant operated by its head chef, Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer).  Boarst suffers through Albert’s tantrums and the abuses he inflicts on other patrons, including Albert’s cultivated wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) and his own minions (including the dull Mitchel played by Tim Roth), all to cook his own food and serve Georgina’s exquisite palette.  And when Georgina strikes up a nightly affair with another restaurant patron, a quiet and refined book depository operator named Michael (Alan Howard), Richard hides the lovers under Albert’s nose, providing sanctuary for their liaisons in his pastry locker, his game room, and other kitchen areas.  Albert eventually discovers Georgina’s affair and tracks Michael to his library where he and his gang murder Georgina’s lover by force-feeding him pages of his favourite book until he suffocates.  Broken-hearted and unable to stand for Albert’s cruelty any longer, Georgina convinces Richard to cook Michael’s body so that she can force Albert to eat it in the presence of his other victims, bringing writer-director Peter Greenaway’s film to its apex in culinary horror.

But, to reduce The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover to its mere plot is to fail to describe the film altogether.  As Greenaway himself notes, “After a very short time, one understands the plot of my films.”  He’s not concerned with “what happens, only how it happens,” and The Cook, the Thief abounds with resplendent sets, costumes (from Jean-Paul Gautier), and colour that take their cues from Jacobean revenge tragedy, Rabelaisian comedy, the modern thriller, and, perhaps most importantly, 17th century Dutch painting.  Greenaway’s painterly approach and his affinity for metaphor utilize the cautionary still-lives and vanitas paintings of Ambrosius Bosschaert, Pieter Aertsen, Rembrandt, and others, which depicted the newly discovered affluence of the Dutch Republic and set it against the contrasting anxiety of decay and mortality, of the material corruption feared by good Dutch Protestantism.  Greenaway adorns the film with the same tension between material joy and spiritual complacency with an eye on Thatcherite Britain.  Albert is Greenaway’s quintessential neo-con consumer, happy to brag, boast, and spend without ever truly appreciating the value of what surrounds him.  Ultimately, these empty efforts and this meaningless greed leads to violence and self-destruction of the most gruesome order.  The allegory is obvious, however Greenaway expresses his dissent not through political tracts, but by objects and compositions that convey meaning at both their surface and on the level of the symbolic.

For us, The Cook, the Thief is foremost a revenge film – one of the most elegant, clever, and nasty examples offered by the cinema.  The film is full of those brutal acts and ironic reversals that typify both Jacobean revenge tragedies and vengeance-themed cinema.  Georgina and Michael carry on their affair in the toilets and the kitchen, under the very nose of Albert, thumbing their noses at Albert who asserts that the pleasures of love and food are related “because the naughty bits and the dirty bits are so close together.”  Albert stuffs Michael full of book pages, having previously admonished him for reading while eating and no doubt punishing the man for the learnedness that attracts Georgina and that Albert only apes at.  Georgina forces Albert to eat Michael at gunpoint, ironically literalizing Albert’s threat, “I’ll kill him and then I’ll eat him.”  And these repetitions and inversions are consistently played out in a self-consciously spectacular fashion, fulfilling the need for vengeance to be externally confirmed and appreciated.  At times it is obvious and diegetic, such as when Albert defends to his henchmen his desire that others be aware of his wrath when he mutilates the kitchen boy or when he kills Michael, or when Georgina arranges an audiences of Albert’s victims to observe his punishment.  At other times, audiences are constructed artificially and alluded to, such as by the watchful gazes in Frans Hals group portrait Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Company (1616) that dominates the dining room of Le Hollandais, or by Greenaway’s curtained, three-walled sets with exposed scaffolding that formally presents the film as something of a stage play arranged for our viewing.  The film pans left to right and right to left, Sacha Vierny’s cinematography dancing with Michael Nyman’s score.  The Cook, the Thief is often cited as Greenaway’s most accessible and popular film and I would suggest that its embrace is most facilitated by Greenaway’s focus on the revenge narrative and the natural compliment of his high-culture and highly affected approach to the rigorously formal and explicitly spectacular conventions and structure of vengeance cinema.  It is here, within these grudges, grievances, and harms, that the density of Greenaway’s aesthetics can take firmest root, critically serving his simple story while providing the allegorical value of his political commentary.

Scott HoveThe Cook, the Thief may be a long shot for becoming available to the Criterion Collection, but with its Region 1 DVD out of print, Greenaway’s film desperately needs to return to circulation and preferably in a high-definition transfer that does justice to its lavish sets and costumes.  In fact, much of Greenaway’s filmography is in need of better distribution in North America, and so MMC! readers should expect us to return to this filmmaker again in the future.  With regard to cover art, the violence, brutality, and resentment of The Cook, the Thief set in the world of fine dining immediately put us in mind of Scott Hove and his Cakeland exhibit, full of beautifully terrible and threatening confections.  We were pleased to discover that Hove’s Cakeland had its genesis in a series of unusual still lives that seemed to offer a modern take on the vanitas still-lives discussed earlier.  Seeing Hove’s progress as an artist working in food and fear, we would have high expectations for what he might produce for a cover and an overall packaging concept of The Cook, the Thief.

Credits:  Greenaway has provided commentaries and introductions on DVD releases of his other films, and so we’ve imagined some special features placing Greenaway at the forefront of this imagined Criterion Collection release, assumed some “behind the scenes” footage is available based on extras included on other Greenaway releases, and included his 1989 short film, Hubert Bals Handshake and his lectures at UC Berkeley.  We’ve also included some interviews with cast and crew given their notoriety and to offer an alternative assessment of this unusual film.  With regard to essayists, we chose Tony Rayns for his past writing on Greenaway (particularly his contribution on the release of A Zed & Two Noughts (1985)), Douglas Keesey for his book The Films of Peter Greenaway: Sex, Death and Provocation, and Ruth Johnston for her essay “The Staging of the Bourgeois Imaginary in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1990).”  We also owe thanks and refer those interested in Greenaway’s film to Nicholas O. Pagan’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover: Making Sense of Postmodernism,” Nita Rollins’ “Greenaway-Gautier: Old Masters, Fashion Slaves,” Miguel Ángel González Campos’s “Crime, Revenge and Horror: Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover as a Jacobean Revenge Tragedy,” Dayana Stetco’s “The Crisis of Commentary: Tilting at Windmills in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” in Paula Willoquet-Maricondi and Mary Alemany-Galway’s Peter Greenaway’s Postmodern/Poststructuralist Cinema, Sylvia Karastathi’s “Filming the Dutch Still Life: Peter Greenaway’s Objects,” and William F. van Wert’s review for Film Quarterly.  This post merely scratches the surface of The Cook, the Thief and fans of the film can easily find varied discussions and approaches to better access this very dense work.

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3 thoughts on “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1990)

  1. Noah Bowen May 22, 2016 / 3:01 am

    So badly needed, I’m shocked and shocked again that this film yet lacks the proper treatment. It’s a disgrace!

    • spinenumbered May 22, 2016 / 3:25 am

      Agreed. In fact, there’s a lot of Greenaway still in need of proper treatments – this is just the top of the list.

  2. The Vern October 28, 2016 / 12:20 am

    I remember seeing this on a letterbox vhs and the visuals were really good. I agree this needs to be released on blueray

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