Retro Review: ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’

Sometimes a movie’s reputation is built largely on how sparsely seen it is. The Cook, the cook3Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover was given a proper release in 1989 and despite a wealth of top name talent in the cast it has seemingly faded away. In the United States it enjoyed a brief DVD run 20 years ago before going out of print. On rare occasions I have heard of it popping up on a streaming service here or there but never for long. No doubt there are many bewildered people out there who think their cinephile friends are skipping their meds when they talk about a trippy movie wherein the distinguished thespian Michael Gambon is forced to eat a person at a fancy French restaurant. But I assure you this movie does exist, and by off chance you get the chance to watch the Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover I recommend you do so but be prepared for a unique movie viewing experience.

Georgina is the hapless wife to the sadistic blowhard gangster Albert Spica, who takes her and his henchmen to nightly dinners at a fancy French restaurant where he is extorting the chef. While Georgina tries to enjoy the expertly crafted food, Spica takes this opportunity to bully and lord over everyone loudly causing a scene with little care. During one of these dinners she notices a fellow intellectual among the patrons. With the help of the chef, the two engage in a passionate and torrid affair. Each trip to the restaurant ends with Georgina finding an excuse to run off with her new lover. It becomes only a matter of time before Spica finds out what is happening right under his nose and unleashes his own brand of violence. But in a hilariously macabre turn of events Georgina has her vengeance.

Director Peter Greenaway proudly showcases an exaggerated and lavish visual languagecook2 to this film which draws in and entrances the viewer. The best way I can describe it would be a posh Terry Gilliam-inspired style. The story unfolds largely on five stylized set pieces: the parking lot, the book depository, the kitchen, the restroom, and of course the dining room. Almost as if you were watching a stage play. Each location has it’s own distinct look and color scheme. The hell on earth ruled by Michael Gambon’s Spica is the dining room appropriately decorated in reds and blacks. But this setpiece changes at the film’s end. Led by Helen Mirren as Georgina, all those who have been victimized by him throughout the film welcome him back to the dining room. However, this time the colors are muted and the splendor which once adorned the place have been stripped back as they are now there for revenge. Presented on a silver platter before the thugs is the lover cooked as only a trained chef can do and now Spica is forced to eat him. As far as film climaxes go this is easily one of the most memorable ones.

The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover is a strange and sexy film.  Many critics over the years have looked at this picture through a variety of lenses. Some have seen it as a commentary on the conservative British politics of the era it was made. While others have taken a more literary perspective to it. As such the viewer can see the Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover in any way they see fit. But they all agree this is a visceral and courageous with a talented cast who all given stellar performances.