Film Review: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover | Greater than the Plate

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In fictional media, the act of eating and dining with others is one of the most commonly used elements that is used to represent something greater. Usually, eating is used to show a form of comfort a character regularly enjoys, while overeating can represent how wasteful or gluttonous a person is. Scenes of characters eating a meal together also are used in dichotomous ways, such as to show how close the characters are, or to underline tension running among the characters that is highlighted by forcing them all in close quarters.The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a film that is spends about 90% of its running time in a restaurant, moving from the dining room to the kitchen to the bathrooms to the parking lot outside. Directed by Peter Greenaway, the 1989 film uses the massive set that is the Le Hollandais restaurant to center the action of the film. The restaurant is owned by British gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), a nouveau riche psychopath, who dines at Le Hollandais nightly with his beautiful but troubled wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) and his gang members. At Le Hollandais, Georgina continues an affair with a quiet bookkeeper named Michael (Alan Howard) who also dines there nightly. Their affair is aided by head chef Richard Borst (Richard Bohringer), who loathes Albert but has to accept the gangster’s repeated revenue.

What’s fascinating about this film is that Le Hollandais comes to encompass nearly the entire world these characters live in. There’s brief moments where they move outside of the restaurant (to Michael’s book depository, to a hospital, and to a regular street), but nearly the entire film is capsuled inside the restaurant. Because of this, the restaurant begins to take a life of its own, aided by the film’s incredible art direction.

Each of the main rooms in the restaurant has a main color as the motif; red for the dining room, green for the kitchen, white for the bathrooms, and blue for the parking lot. When Albert and Georgina move between these rooms, their clothes change colors depending on the room. The dining room is where many carnal and bacchanalian events occur. Albert attempts to enjoy fine dining, but the topics usually range from the scatological to the sexual. It is also in the red dining room where many of the violent acts in the film occur, such as a prostitute being stabbed in the face with a fork and dishes being thrown around in acts of rage.

The green kitchen and the white bathroom are where Georgina and Michael’s affair usually take place. The bathroom is where the characters often go for rejuvenation and release, a clean space where they can escape from the chaos of the red dining room. The kitchen is a place of passion and jealousy. Richard allows Georgina and Michael to have sex in various parts of the kitchen such as the pantry, but it’s also in the kitchen where Albert flies into a rage. Both spaces, while offering breaks from the insanity of the dining room, are both compromised in the end.
It’s only when the characters move outside the restaurant that the locations start to feel more natural. The book depository is shot in warm earth tones, allowing Michael and Georgina to have a place where they can finally be free and not have to worry about Albert. Unfortunately, like the bathroom and the kitchen, the depository is a place that can’t be protected forever, even with the large doors and massive doorstopper. While someone like Albert exists, there can’t be any harmony in the world.

This is what helps make The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover so interesting. This is a small world where there’s nothing beyond the characters and their story. This is something that’s common in minimalist films, where there’s only a certain amount of characters and sets present (see: my review of Persona for something similar). Because of this, the world seems more perverse than it normally is. Albert is allowed to cause a ruckus in the restaurant every night, disturbing all the other guests, and generally creating a mockery of the dining experience, yet he’s never thrown out, the police are never called, and everyone just tolerates it, even if it means they get beaten by him and his thugs.

Despite how unpleasant most of the film comes off, there is still a lot to enjoy. The atmosphere present in the film is magnificent, combining large and ornate sets with an incredible score. The actors all play their parts really well, especially Gambon and Mirren. While the film may be a little hard to stomach for some people (the opening scene has Albert and his goons beat and strip a man, then smear excrement on him before urinating on him), it’s still an impressively made film, and one that really carries the experimental nature well, producing a strange film that’s quite magnificent.

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