Anchor Bay // 1989 // 124 Minutes // Rated NC-17
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // May 7th, 2001
Anyone care for dinner?
Director Peter Greenaway is a prolific director with a bunch of movies to his credit that I have never heard of. His vast array of films includeWater Wrackets, A Zed and Two Noughts, and Lacock Village (the last I would see just because the name makes me giggle like a Catholic schoolgirl). In other words, I can't tell you a darn thing about him. I can say that the only film I know of his is The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Starring Michael Gambon (The Insider, Sleepy Hollow), Helen Mirren (The Mosquito Coast, Teaching Ms. Tingle) and Alan Howard (a bunch of movies I've never heard of), Anchor Bay dishes up this feast for the senses on DVD.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is about a cook, a thief, his wife and a urinal salesman. HA! Just kidding, it's her lover.
The bulk of the film takes place at the restaurant Le Hollindais (translation: "restaurant where racy NC-17 movie is set"), an upscale eatery located in London. There we meet our four defining characters: Albert the thief (Gambon) who is a loud, ungracious, and a mean spirited fellow; his wife Georgina (Mirren) who is icily quite yet sexually adventurous; Richard the shy cook (Richard Bohringer); and Georgina's lover Michael (Howard), who is basically a big book worm and all around dork.
The film takes place over the span of a week or two at Le Hollindais, owned by Richard, who seems to owe Albert money (which is made painfully clear, as the opening scene is of Richard being dragged naked to the street and smeared with dog doo-doo). Albert is a regular at this place, bringing along his gang of ruffians and louts to watch him eat sloppily and hurl insults at everyone that walks by (and then some). Albert could have easily passed as one of those Saturday Night Live "Da' Bears!" characters. He is big, annoying and usually doesn't have a clue what he's talking about. Next to him sits his wife Georgina, who has all the patience in the world to put up with him. It also doesn't hurt that if she speaks out of line or says something that dissatisfies him, he beats her like a piñata.
Georgina, however, has a few good things going for her. She soon meets Michael (they lock gazes across the room), a regular as well who eats his meal while reading some of his favorite books. These two soon begin a torrid affair, making love under Albert's nose at the restaurant. They bop the big one in such fun places as a meat freezer, a table where duck feathers are plucked, and a women's toilet stall. Yes, these two are genuine romantics in the best sense of the word.
I'd also like to point out that every time a scene takes place in the kitchen, we get a glimpse of the cooking staff. For some odd reason there is a large, shirtless cook who looks like the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. I found this to be not only strange, but upsetting to my stomach as I'd just eaten some tuna mac n' cheese and a Rolling Rock beer.
Albert finds out about Georgina's affair and becomes livid. Richard the cook helps the two lovers escape (which in and of itself is pretty gross, take my word for it), and soon Albert is on the warpath. Will Michael evade Albert's vicious temper? Will Georgiana be able to keep slobbin' Michael's knob? And what's with the half naked Simpsons lookin' guy?
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is rated NC-17. I have not had much viewing experience in the NC-17 area. Needless to say, once I saw the NC-17 in the case, I was hoping it would put the word "tit" back into titillating. I was not disappointed.
Before I continue this review, I want to say a few things. I am not an intellectual yahoo. I am not a social commentator. I am not an independent film connoisseur. I am a regular Joe Schmuck who thinks that Independence Day was a barrel of monkeys, and then some. I do not usually sit down and watch The English Patient or other such artsy films. Why am I saying this? To let you know that I am reviewing The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover from a regular guy-on-the-street standpoint. You want an in-depth review about this film's social commentary and intrinsic value, read Roger Ebert (whom I do respect). He can do that much better than I. You want to know if this is worth watching instead of The Big Lebowski? You've come to the right review.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a really weird film. It was not quite as scandalous as I thought it would be, though it is sick and twisted. Peter Greenaway (who also wrote the screenplay) must be repainting the inside of his house daily and sucking in all the fumes to have concocted this bizarre tale of food, sex, and gluttony.
As played by Michael Gambon, Albert is the type of character you love to hate, so much so that by the end of the film if he's not gotten his just dessert you're ready to make angry calls to the studios heads. The character of Albert generally is one-dimensional, though there are moments of pity and feeling that he shows, however small. Mirren as Georginia is so cold and bitter at her hubby that she looks as if she's ready to chop off his pecker right then and there. One questions her motives of why she stays with him; she explains, but it still never seems very fitting a reason. The cook (Bohringer) and the lover (Howard) do fine work with their roles, but this is really Gambon and Mirren's show, and they definitely bring down the house.
The film's atmosphere is one of its greatest assets, and Greenaway lights up the scenes with great care. There are even points when the film has a bit of a Tim Burton feel to it. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover seems to always take place at night, and if there are any day scenes you could have fooled me. Greenaway's use of color and dizzying camera work heighten the proceedings, making the film even more enjoyable.
And finally there is the insightful, brilliant subtext. Umm...err...uh...
There was subtext?
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is presented in anamorphic 2:35:1 and looks excellent. From what I understand there was a laserdisc version that was released that was less-than-impressive. This version looks great with solid blacks and bright colors. Greenaway uses lighting in a very nice fashion, often lighting up different rooms for mood and atmosphere (the washrooms are bright white, the dining room dark red, etcetera). There was no grain spotted and digital artifacting was kept to the bare minimum. Overall a great transfer by Anchor Bay.
Audio is a Dolby Digital 2.0 presentation and is much less impressive than the video portion of the disc. The audio is all up front and sounds decent enough, though the accents can get hard to decipher. There are no subtitles included on the disc, which is shame, as I had no idea what they were talking about in spots. Overall dialogue was clear, music used effectively (Michael Nyman's score is a delight), and effects presented well.
The only extra included are two anamorphic theatrical trailers and some nifty scene selections.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is certainly not to everyone's taste (pun intended). If you are a big Disney fan and have kids, stay as far away form this as you can...oh, say Tibet. There is plenty of violence, and a great deal of sex (I saw Helen Mirren's buttocks so much that they are now firmly ingrained in my brain). The accents can be a bit hard to understand, and the exclusion of subtitles is a real downer.
This is also not the easiest movie to sit through. I enjoyed it because I was always interested in what was going to happen next, and the character study was very vivid and insightful. However, there are many moments in the film that are uneasy and downright mean. This can be construed as black comedy, though I didn't find a ton of material to laugh at. Things thrown on screen seemed to often be there for shock value rather than a chuckle. Now, if there would have been a scene where a character rubs semen in her hair thinking it's styling gel...well, now THAT would have been funny.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a very different movie, and recommended to those who feel they can stomach a little sex, violence, and gratuitous eating. I'm not too sure as the NC-17 rating is really warranted, as the sex is not horribly graphic, and the violence never tends to linger. Unless you're a fan I can't really recommend this as a purchase, but it does make for an intriguing rental.
Free to go, though I do feel a bit dirty for saying so. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated NC-17
* Two Theatrical Trailers