The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

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

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover


Peter Greenaway's next film after Drowning by Numbers is this more accessible offering about sex, lust, food, gluttony, murder and revenge. It's a controversial film and has a NC-17 rating in the US. The film opens with a vulgar scatological scene, when a man is smeared with excrement by 'The Thief', Albert Spica. Most of the film is set in an elegant gourmet restaurant called Le Hollandais. Spica dines at this restaurant frequently, along with his gorgeous wife Georgina (played by solemnly sexy Helen Mirren) and his group of uncouth associates.

Spica is a vulgarian, who growls his orders towards those around him. Georgina then becomes fixated with a customer in the restaurant (Alan Howard) and the two of them have a dangerous sexual affair there. Eventually, Spica discovers their liaison, and the film draws to its memorable and shocking conclusion, which is the ultimate retribution. Sumptuous to look like at and superbly performed.


"This isn't a freak show; it's a deliberate and thoughtful film in which the characters are believable and we care about them." - Roger Ebert ****


Helen Mirren on the film:

"Well, yes, it is a dangerous film. It's deep and complex and we're not skating around any issues. It's on the cutting edge, quite apart from the content - look at the style of the filmmaking, the artificiality of it, the strangeness of the dialogue. I knew it was dangerous, but I didn't think it was that dangerous. You know, that X-rated thing, because that's a different kind of thing altogether...

It gets into a dangerous, dangerous area, and people come out thinking they have confronted something in themselves. It's a challenge. It would be irresponsible to use the material in this film for simple commercialism. Our film doesn't manipulate. Greenaway does a lot of things to put a distance between the actions and the style. The movie's clearly artificial, for example. My costume changes colour according to the different locations - red in the dining room, green in the kitchen, white in the toilet. It's crazily artificial...

Before I spoke to the ratings board, I hardly knew what the R rating meant, but I've come to realize the American system is pretty bad on both levels. I think it's bad for adults, since it makes it difficult for them to see films they might really enjoy. And on the other side of it, children see films that I think are dangerous for them as well.

The whole R rating depends on a strange sort of fantasy land, where all adults are responsible people, and children only ever go to the cinema with their parents. They don't go with babysitters or older brothers, or with the local drug dealer. It's this lovely sort of apple pie fantasy America, that not only doesn't exist in America, it doesn't exist anywhere. It puts too much belief in the responsibility of adults in one direction - enforcing the R rating - and not enough belief in the responsibility of adults to choose what they want to see in the other direction. It's very strange and contradictory...

I think he's (Greenaway) also someone who directs more from his deep subconscious than anyone else. He writes from his subconscious, and then simply directs...

I felt - the emphasis was on the 'I' - it was about ecology. It is basically about crass, vulgar, consumerism. I saw it as the way mankind is consuming and abusing the world, but that was just my private version of it, and I think that's basically what artists try to do. Painters hate having to explain what their work is about. They always say, it's whatever you want it to be - because I think that's their intention, to connect with each person's subconscious, and not to try and dictate...

For all of his intellectualism, I think Peter Greenaway directs from his real inner gut, and he seems to have a very direct channel in that. The only other director I can think of who's close is David Lynch (Blue Velvet), who controls and contains his vision more because he is American. He works within the system here. That's what he has to do, so he manages to form his films into something that's acceptable...

The chairman of the board (Richard Heffner) kept going on and on about the 'level of comfort' that an adult would feel taking a child to see this film. 'How comfortable would a parent be, how hot under the collar would he get because he happened to be sitting next to a 9-year old?' Well of course that's the joke of an R rating - what business would any adult have bringing a 9-year-old to this film?...

Well, I made a long speech about art, and what was art in filmmaking. I said that if a film was done with a deep, imaginative, artistic intent, even if children do go to see it, I think it's less destructive to them than going to see so many of the horrible films that come out under an R rating. I can't see where anything in our film is more destructive to the human spirit than the sort of mindless violence they do approve for children.

The thing is, you find yourself arguing within a system that you don't basically believe in. I came to realize very quickly what the rules are, and how they shake down, I think it's philistine, and I think it's censorship.

The chairman of the board kept saying, 'We don't believe in censorship. We think this is a fine film, an artistic film, and we don't want to cut a frame of it, and that's why we won't give it an R rating'.

In America, I think that a generation has grown up that's absolutely dead to a certain kind of hostile sex and violence. It has no effect at all. It's simply movement on the screen. Then a film like ours comes along. In reality what actually happens on the screen, what you see, is no worse than in many R-rated films, but the film language in which it's expressed is so new, so extraordinary. I couldn't really work out why they should feel it's okay to look at this, but not at that, and I thought it must be, in the end, the quality of the film language. It's like a great painting. If a painting is done by Francis Bacon, it has a much greater effect on you, than looking at an advertisement. It has an impact...

And when you see dead bodies in violent movies, it's not the same as when you see this dead body laying there. The dead body in our film has a particular sort of emptiness, doesn't it?...

That's what the film demonstrates, tyranny breeds tyranny. Look at Chicesceau. Or the way they strung Mussolini and his mistress up. Tyrants often get ripped apart by their subjects, literally limb from limb...

I think, that in a way, it's easier to be the kind of filmmaker that Peter has been if you live in England or in France. It's a lot more difficult here, and those who adhere to that vision, who just can't let go of it, deserve an immense amount of credit."

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Peter Greenaway and Helen Mirren on the set of the film


Peter Greenaway and Helen Mirren on the set of the film


The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Milita Company - Frans Hals, 1616

The painting on the wall of Le Hollandais restaurant is called The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Milita Company, painted in 1616 by Dutch painter Frans Hals.



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