Catching Up: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

We all have gaps in our cinematic knowledge, films which, if we confess our ignorance of, someone, somewhere will say, “How have you not seen that?!” Catching Up is about these films, and viewing them so long after seemingly everyone else has. Some of these entries may be shocking, some are embarrassing, but all of them are classics.

The Film:

Directed by Peter Greenaway, originally released in the UK and France in 1989 and in America in 1990. While a crass gangster (Michael Gambon) makes nightly impositions on a high-class restaurant, his miserable wife (Helen Mirren) carries on an affair with a bookish intellectual (Alan Howard).


Wait, you really haven’t seen this?

Jaws was a film that everybody in the world seems to have seen (except me). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a film that every film student in the world seems to have seen (except me). The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a film that seemingly every film lover in the world has seen… except for me. Until now, that is. I attended a screening at the wonderful New Beverly Cinema, and saw the film projected in lovely 35mm.

The Legacy:

If any cinematic layman has heard of this movie, it’s likely in reference to how controversial it was in its original release. Originally slapped with a X rating by the always boo-hissable MPAA, the then-fledgling Weinstein Company decided to release the film to theaters unrated. For it’s home video release though, they made an R-rated cut of the film. This entailed shaving more than half an hour from its running time! Later that year, the NC-17 rating would be created, in an attempt to allow films with explicit content to be released without the pornographic stigma of the X. The Weinstein Company would go on to be a powerhouse of Oscar bait, and carry on a proud tradition of upholding its movies’ artistic integrity no matter what the MPAA threatened.


What did you know about it beforehand?

I knew that there would be a lot of sex and nudity and food, and that fecal matter and cannibalism would be involved at one point or another. That’s it. I had no inkling of how this material would be handled, what tone it would take… really, anything that was in store for me. I didn’t even know Gambon was in it.

Did what you know matter?

No. But what I didn’t know mattered a whole lot. Even though a truly good film will always win you over no matter how much of it you know about going in, there’s something to be said for a truly unspoiled experience, and that’s what I had here. With so few expectations, there were few prejudices, and I was as receptive as possible to what was coming.

Which was good, since this is, to put it delicately, a weird-ass movie.

Did anything surprise you?

The whole thing, pretty much.

For one, there was the atmosphere of the piece. I hadn’t seen a Peter Greenaway film before, nor read up on his style. I’d describe this film as a Cockney opera. The production design is lavish (Haute Couture fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier made the costumes. His name in the credits got a few cheers from my audience). The staging is grand and purposefully artificial-feeling, as if the cameras are in a theater and not a real place. The cinematography is deliberate and elegant, almost Kubrickian in its meticulousness. A bombastic orchestra scores the proceedings. The story is overflowing with dramatic, over-the-top emotion, and the acting from all parties is measured to match it. It’s a tale of violence, passion, infidelity, jealousy, pretensions of grandeur, and revenge. There’s even a lone choir boy singing to the heavens!

This high-falutin approach is contrasted with some of the most lowbrow content possible. Gangsters maim and/or kill people with deeply gruesome methods. Feces are smeared on… suffice to say that they are smeared on things. No part of Helen Mirren or Alan Howard’s bodies are left to your imagination. Human flesh is consumed. But Greenaway knows exactly what he is doing. Really, nothing that happens in this movie is any less gross than what goes down in mythology or Shakespeare (seriously, Titus Andronicus). Greenaway is creating a truly classical story, but in a modern setting. According to one interpretation I’ve read, it’s all a metaphor for Thatcherism. I’m not sure about that, but it’s certainly a piece ripe for analysis and dissection.

So, did it live up to the hype?

Yes, but then, this film wasn’t overly hyped for me. I was very aware of it, to be sure, and knew of its reputation, but I had no real expectations of it being either particularly great or bad. But it turned out to be capital-G Great, not just a noteworthy film but a legitimately involving one, both intellectually and emotionally. The acting is all great. Gambon’s evilly vulgar criminal bull is so indelible that I doubt I’ll ever be able to look at Dumbledore the same way again. Mirren is a perfect force of repressed, simmering passion. The way the movie uses color is academically fascinating as well as being incredibly pretty. There are so many things to chew on (sorry) in this movie, on so many different levels.

If you’re the poor kind of sport who can’t deal with seeing poop and penises on screen, then I suppose you should stay away from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. It’s not as if the out-there content is handled immaturely or gratuitously. There’s a reason for it all. If you can handle it, then you should unquestionably seek this out.

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