If William Shakespeare were alive today, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover would be the sort of script he would produce. Everything about the work, from the obsession with class relations to the eccentric supporting cast to one of the finest endings I have ever seen, makes Cook one of the best films of the 1980s. Unfortunately, the film was wrongly withheld to the embracing public over some of it’s “controversial” content.
I should explain. This film, currently rated NC-17, was the subject of a national controversy surrounding the MPAA rating system. It was eventually released unrated, but that means it was not seen by much of anyone. Even today, practically no one knows about it. I don’t even think it is available in print on Region 1 DVD (it is on Netflix Instant). Shame, is the only word that describes that fact. Whereas less important films are widely praised, rereleased, and rerun into the ground on basic cable, Cook has become the most tragic victim of our outdated and puritanical ratings system.
But all of that is just background. WHY is this film important? What about Cook makes it required viewing?
Most of it has to do with the ending, which is very hard for me not to give away in this analysis. But it’s unrated status also demonstrates how brave Cook is. It wants to show Thatcher’s Britain how its upper classes still were a mask of culture, but are really interested in using those tools to cause destruction and ruin to everyone.
The film is about a gangster named Albert (Michael Gambon, known to most for playing Dumbledore) who has recently bought a high-end French restaurant. He views himself as cultured, showing up to the restaurant every night with some of his goons, but is really a despicable violent tempered man who enjoys torturing people in horrific ways. His wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), hates him, and begins an affair with another restaurant patron named Michael (Alan Howard). They sleep together in the restaurant while the head chef Richard (Richard Bohringer) tries to protect them. But Albert finds out, and all parties seek to solve their problems surrounding their relationship.
I will go ahead and say that yes, there are many grotesque scenes in the film, including gangsters force feeding people feces, a young boy being tortured, and several explicitly sexual scenes. But you know what? Those scenes help illustrate what “gratuitous” actually means. None of those scenes are done for their own sakes, or are used to entice and shock viewers (as Human Centipede was). They are used to build up the characters and demonstrate how cruel the upper class can still be to people who it views as “commodities.” There is one little boy who always sings in beautiful soprano (as a sort of nervous tic) but is still viewed as worthless by the piggish Alfred, to the point where he can slice off his belly button with a feeling of glee.
Oh, there is a lot in this film about class warfare, buried in the subtext (including a book on the French Revolution being used as a torture device). And that ending, in which the thief is finally forced to eat his just desserts (and where he basically has to re-enact the ending of Titus Andronicus) also seems to be a statement of what happens when the upper class is called on their bluffs.
But, as with any great film, that is almost besides the point. Any director can make a symbol, or have something to say. The best filmmakers are those who can make their message worth hearing.
To do that, an a director needs to elicit great performances and scenes. Cook is full of them. Gambon has never been better. He was not praised (and was unfairly not nominated for an Oscar) because the character he plays is so disgusting, and he plays it as though Albert is a wild animal that has escaped from a zoo. Not exactly subtle, but then, that’s the point of the character. Mirren is the perfect foil; withdrawn but highly intelligent and articulate. The dynamic between these two characters, and their every day lives, would have been a fine film in itself.
But director Peter Greenaway knows that it would not be enough to see the gangster’s life. It was necessary to see the world that allows him to exist; a world where human life has no apparent value. Even the sets of the upper class restaurant seems to look sterile and fake, as though it a set in a play (the final scene has a curtain being rung down over the action). It is the more lively world of the employees that would be more inhabitable, if it had not been allowed to fall into disrepair. This is a beautiful looking film; one that highlights the worlds the sets of characters inhabit.
I have no idea why the film was such a pariah when it was released. It was the sort of thing that should have been warmly embraced and become fondly remembered as one of the all time great British films. For my money, the actual violent elements are no worse than any of the stylized Guy Ritchie films. The difference is that Cook shows that world as it really is, and works in making people uncomfortable. Jonathan Swift once wrote an essay calling for children to be eaten to alleviate a famine. It’s still being quoted, three hundred years later. Why should Cook, which works on the same level, continue to be ignored?