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

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), written and directed by Peter Greenaway.

A beautiful and ugly X-rated film. The language and other grotesqueries are unremittingly vile. In the first scene a failed chef is stripped, beaten, smeared with feces, pissed on and left to roll in the street with the dogs.

The always outstanding Michael Gambon is our brutish, foul-mouthed gangster and would-be gourmand, wearing a sash as if fancying himself a renaissance lord.

The beauty comes from Greenaway's wit and painterly imagination. He uses formal yet entertaining composition and camera movement. Sometimes adding motion to a still picture is actually a small thing.

Helen Mirren (age 44) and Alan Howard do full nudity. She did it before when younger, and although she said it made her nervous, it always seems very natural for her.

I'm not sure what Greenaway intended here. He illustrates a gulf between (a) the violent, crude and crazy, and (b) the kindly, loving and creative. No one crosses that divide, although some of the gangsters join the good folk and show up for the final scene of revenge. 2h04m is ample time for what is actually a simple plot.

The key idea seems to be of Flesh, in its several meanings:

He mixes these all together, sometimes in a picturesque display, as when the lovers couple in the pantries, but more often in grotesquely unpleasant ways, as in the wild ride locked in the back of a truck when, naked as Adam and Eve, they are flung about with a cargo of rotting meat. And hosed down after.

The combination of sex and toilets has never appealed to me, although people are always doing it there in movies. Philosopher/thug Albert spells it out:


You know, I am an artist the way I combine my business and my pleasure: Money's my business, eating's my pleasure and Georgie's my pleasure, too, though in a more private kind of way than stuffing the mouth and feeding the sewers, though the pleasures are related because the naughty bits and the dirty bits are so close together that it just goes to show how eating and sex are related. Georgie's naughty bits are nicely related, aren't they, Georgie?

Some say the movie is actually about British politics during Thatcher's time. I'm not getting that. You'd have to really hate Thatcher.

Small parts for Tim Roth and CiarĂ¡n Hinds. I get a Harry Potter count of 3 for the whole cast.

As is often the case, the director is blessed with a score by Michael Nyman, this time muscular and driving, but also comically mechanical. Sex and eating are both rhythmical.

If you are interested in the director, I have previously reviewed:

I would like to do The Pillow Book and Prospero's Books, the latter being the only one of his films I really care for.

Like many of Greenaway's movies, the DVD desperately needs subtitles and doesn't have them. Partly because of some accents, but also the room noise and background music. And the boy soprano: no way to understand his lyrics otherwise. As I swore to do last time, I downloaded SRT subtitles from and added them to a media file version of the DVD.

The DVD is long out of print in the US but available as imports. I see the cover of a Spanish Blu-ray from Mexico but can't tell if it is actually available at the moment.