There is a moment within Peter Greenaway’s THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER where one of the main characters, the vulgar brute that is “The Thief” (a very non-Dumbledore Michael Gambon), describes the relationship between business and pleasure to his equally boorish thugs amidst a painterly image of a vacuous and classical restaurant. For him, those two ideas are intermixed with one another in a way that he deems “artistic”, just as in the way “The Cook” (Richard Bohringer) combines contrasting ingredients together that result in the savory dishes that The Thief and “His Wife” (Helen Mirren) consume on a daily basis. Indeed, the filmmaker Greenaway himself seems to agree to that idea of contrasts revealing artistry as well as his highly theatrical film combines the mouth-watering visuals of beautifully designed stages and costumes with an unsavory and brutal tale of infidelity, lust, and jealousy.
In these contrasts, THE COOK… finds a mindblowing sense of artistic demolition, bringing together the worlds of stage and film in a violent feast for the eyes. Filmed and framed as a televised stage play of sorts, Greenaway’s tale feels like a Shakespeare play mutilated into something much more vulgar and violent, while still maintaining that air of classicity and wit. Truly, one of the first things you’ll notice about the film is just how damn beautiful it all is with its vast sets embracing its theatrical origins through the striking metaphorical color schemes of blood red dining halls, tender green kitchens, and ominously blue streets all of which are beautifully captured by Sacha Vierny’s constantly gliding and wide framed camera. With an ever pervasive camera following the multiple subjects of his tragic tale, Greenaway’s film allows audiences to breathlessly move from baroque dining halls to industrial kitchens, all of which teem with life as performers (both central and miniscule) move along in their own worlds. Furthermore, the score from Michael Nyman further reinforces the film’s theatrics through compositions that not so much support the film as it does guide the story’s sordid highs and soft-spoken lows.
Following in line with the film’s production, Greenaway composes a story that combines extracurricular bombast with an unrelenting air of brutality. Greenaway doesn’t find much new to say in the tale of an abused woman finding solace in a meek and kind man under the nose of her violent gangster husband, but he does manage to find a group of performers who elevate his simple tale into an entertainingly vicious fable of sorts. The film’s central key is found in Gambon’s absolutely scene-stealing showing as the chaotically unhinged Thief of the tale, a thug who desperately aspires to be a part of the refined upper class despite his penchant for vulgar spiels and violent antics. While nothing more than a detestable villain for the tale, Gambon effectively casts an impressive shadow over the rest of the film and its characters. Even so, Bohringer manages to bring a sense of unwavering good-naturedness to a character that is more or less just there to help out Mirren’s “Wife” and Alan Howard’s character as her “Lover”. While Mirren and Howard bring some much needed warmth to their simmering and ill-fated romance (and the story at large), their relationship holds less interesting weight compared to the odd-couple pairing of Bohringer and Gambon’s polarized characters. Nevertheless, one can’t help but feel that the filmmaker was more concerned with crafting a lucious looking film moreso than designing a story that holds many wisdoms.
But sometimes wisdoms are overrated. Sometimes you just want to look at and get lost in a gloriously realized world of vicious thugs and heroic cooks. True, THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER could be argued to be nothing more than a film that desperately wants to be a piece of art, a grotesque painting that has its subjects moving to and fro between their humanly desires and flaws in violent fashion. But a painting is still a painting, and despite this particular painting relishing in the barbaric, one can’t deny that the piece of work on display showcases a talented visual eye. Indeed, when Greenaway surrounds his unrelenting violence with a sheen of beautiful sets and vivid imagery, a viewer wouldn’t be blamed for labeling the sights as something close to “artistic”.