The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

A psychotic gangster and restaurant owner’s (Michael Gambon) nightly gorges leave his long-suffering wife (Helen Mirren) well and truly fed up.

Set in a gourmet restaurant over a single week, Peter Greenaway’s culinary classic is essentially one long dietribe by Gambon, interrupted only by outré violence, entrée guzzling and caché sex – or some unholy combination of the three. This is a gangster picture like no other, making the bingeing excesses of Tony Montana and Jordan Belfort mere trifles in comparison. Its closest bedfellow is perhaps compatriot Sexy Beast, if just for Ben Kingsley’s bowel-churning monologues – but even that stopped short of the subject and fecal matter on display at Le Hollandais.

Greenaway serves up a smorgasbord of displeasures too great to look away. Alongside Blue Velvet and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was a deciding factor in the creation of the NC-17 rating, given the 1989 choice of being rated X or unrated – neither of which were particularly welcome in mainstream cinemas. Mirren herself defended the film to the MPAA, and it is fairly obvious that no one puts this much work into something simply intended to be provocative – and if they do, surely deserve a Michelin star for sheer virtuosity.

The colour-changing costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier, classical score by Michael Nyman and real food prepared by Giorgio Locatelli create a feast for the senses, a grand Kubrickian vision whose sets are so vast the camera is free to glide between rooms. Inspired by the Dutch Golden Age, Greenaway’s lavish shot compositions offer a hundred bizarre sights in every sumptuous frame. And the performances are among the most committed to ever disgrace British cinema, with Gambon on fire to the point that you question the sanity of those who eat at his restaurant.

And maybe that’s the point – an all-consuming critique of Thatcherism and all who swill from its trough; a society that rots from the head, and trickles down to the sewers. Still flowing and humming with political fury, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover puts the gorge in gorgeous and the phlegm in Flemish masters.

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