Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was the art film of 1990, which is to say that if you saw only one art film that year, this was probably the one you saw. It was daring. It had a hint of scandal attached to its excesses. It was full of nudity, sex, violence and an extremely disturbing revenge scheme. Controversy oozed from every frame. Roger Ebert mounted a personal campaign against the MPAA for refusing to give the film an R rating.
Moreover, it was—and still is—a film destined to be endlessly discussed and interpreted. What was it all about? Was the movie an attack on the Thatcher government in Great Britain? Was it a broader attack on corporate greed? Was it about voyeurism? Was it an attack on the nouveau riche? Was it possibly just so many empty calories in a sea of stylistic excess? What exactly did the characters represent?
And then there was the additional question of how the audience was supposed to react to the events on the screen. The film very deliberately and very carefully encouraged the viewer to positively abominate the Thief, Albert Spica (a very pre-Dumbledore Michael Gambon). He’s vicious, mean, stupid, vulgar, loud, boorish and greedy. The man is so completely loathsome that the viewer is incapable of not applauding his grotesque comeuppance, but then what? Were you supposed to realize that you’d been dragged down to his level by doing so and be rightly appalled at your response—much the same as intended in Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971)?
So many questions and so few definitive answers—and that’s what makes Greenaway’s film so compelling. The truth, I think, is that every one of these readings is perfectly valid in its own way. I’ve yet to hear a reading that wasn’t supported by the on-screen evidence. It all depends on how you interpret that evidence. We have Greenaway’s word for it that the film is political, but he’s not specific about the nature of its politics. At the same time, the film stylistically fits in with his stated aesthetic of wanting to bring “spectacle” back to the movies. It certainly does that, though not in the “epic” sense, because this is a relatively small movie with a straightforward story line.
Albert Spica has taken over a fancy restaurant and is foisting his crass methods on his “partner,” the Cook (Richard Bohringer), while using the eatery to play loud-mouthed host to his grubby, uncouth strong-arm associates—and as a setting to show off his trophy wife Georgina (Helen Mirren). The wife becomes interested in a quiet, bookish restaurant patron (Alan Howard) and takes him as her lover, arranging trysts with him under Spica’s nose in the restaurant. When this is discovered, the Cook helps the lovers escape, but Spica’s vengeance finds the lover, which in turn leads to Georgina’s decidedly over-the-top, Shakespearean revenge on her vile husband.
Regardless of how you read the film, there’s no denying that it’s a fascinating exercise in style for its own sake (something that can be said of most Greenaway works). That style, however, is not to everyone’s taste, and can be almost suffocating in its relentlessness. If you’ve never seen The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, you really should. You may hate it, but you’ll definitely come away feeling like you’ve really seen something remarkable.