The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover (1989)

The unfortunate reality of oppression and tyranny continues to reign in various facets of society, from households to governments. The sheer bravado, sense of entitlement, and perception of power that shrouds those in control creates an alternative truth from the actualities of the world in which they live. All of this heightened greed serves to further destroy and suppress the desires and wishes of those dependent on these deemed leaders. However, borne from this suffering often comes protest, revenge, and ultimately poetic and social justice. “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” is a delicious (no pun intended) satire directed by Peter Greenaway which addresses this common historical tale with style, wit, dark humour, and vengeance.

The title is most appropriate for the film, as the crux of the story revolves around the four aforementioned characters. Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer) is the devoted and knowledgeable head chef of the prestigious “Le Hollandaise” restaurant. He is overrun and owned by the ruthless, bolstering, and possessive buffoon, Albert Spica (Michael Gambon). Spica frequents the restaurant every night with his band of unmerry men (quite the opposite of Robin Hood) whereby he abuses any customer, friend, or foe who slightly displeases him. His classy yet unfortunate wife, Georgina (the fabulous Helen Mirren), is trapped in a highly abusive marriage, yearning for a means to think and act for herself. Along comes Michael (Alan Howard), a bookkeeper who frequents the restaurant as well and who also catches the eye of Georgina. They begin having a torrid affair during bathroom breaks and in the kitchen with Richard’s aid in concealing the lust. This is amidst Albert’s complete oblivion to his wife’s inner torture in their marriage. Brutality, increasing deception, literary attentiveness, and the stripping of innocence subsequently occur, culminating in a disturbing yet just finale.

I must mention the glorious set design and cinematography of the film, which I feel further highlights many themes in the film. Firstly, the camerawork is so fluid, gliding from intense, violent imagery to more still and orderly surroundings with gradual, smooth transitions between the scenes. The warehouse design of the kitchen and decadence of the restaurant accents the large class divide and inequities between those served and those being served. The stark white bathrooms represent sanctuary and momentary purity from the stresses of life. The harsh and bright red shades in the dining room are quite intense, showcasing fear, control, anger, and bloodshed. I feel that the calmness of the blues and greens within the kitchen emphasizes the community and loyalty amongst the staff, their strength, and fortitude. While Albert threatens to crumble and invade the white, green, and blue settings, the resiliency of the seemingly “lower class group” and the empowering and fearless Georgina rise to combat his power. Overall, I feel that this film is a perfect blend of genres and use of environmental surroundings showcasing the importance of defending human rights and equity for all in the face of utter repression.

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I do not own the above image.

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5 thoughts on “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover (1989)

  1. I was curious to see what you’d say about this one– I wrote about it too, and liked it in spite of myself. The performances, plus Greenaway’s use of color and his painterly aesthetic, made the film unforgettable.

    Liked by 1 person

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