I'm rapidly running out of 4.5* films to review, with the few remaining ones being quite low on my list of priorities. Needless to say, I tend to dial back my expectations when watching these films, but not always deservedly so. The first time I watched Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was some 10 years ago. I loved it back then, but it quickly faded from memory and I haven't paid the film much attention since. That is, until I watched it this weekend and fell in love with it all over again.
I think it's fair to say that Peter Greenaway is a pretty unique director. I haven't seen too many of his films yet, but the ones I've watched are decidedly different from the norm and each one has some or other interesting angle that sets it well apart from other films. Point in case The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, a disturbing tale of love, deceit and revenge that takes place in a lavishly decorated restaurant and grows more grotesque with each passing minute.
If at times the film feels like a stage play, it's probably because many of the film's sets were built in a single, straight path, with the camera zipping past them. Characters are constantly on the move and the camera keeps trailing them throughout the various rooms, never taking any turns or passing any corners. It's not a start to finish experience (like Russian Ark), there are different locations and Greenaway does cut between scenes from time to time, but the effect is clearly there.
The film follows Albert Spica, a small but wealthy criminal who owns a fancy restaurant. Spica and his gang of crooks visit the place on a regular basis, with Albert's wife trailing behind him. What Albert doesn't know is that his wife his cheating him with one of the restaurant's regular customers. The restaurant's cook, clearly more devoted to the well-being of Albert's wife, is helping the two enjoy some privacy while he entertains Albert and his guests.
While the stage play setup may sound a little boring, Greenaway makes sure there's always plenty going on. Each room is viciously stylized, with very deliberate layouts and dress-ups, excessive lighting and almost overpoweringly strong use of color. The characters' costumes were designed by Jean-Paul Gautier and change whenever a character changes rooms (to match the color of the room). It's visual details like that which give The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover a pleasant visual edge.
The score feels classical, very big and always used to its fullest effect. Not quite what I'd listen to by myself, but it does give the film a very strict, powerful flow and rhythm and it's a tremendous asset when bringing the scenes to their climaxes. I love it when directors don't shy away from giving the music a definite place in their films (unless it is overly sentimental of course) and Greenaway demonstrates he understands the value of a great score.
Acting-wise, it would be easy to say this is a Michael Gambon one man show and leave it at that. And Indeed, Gambon does steal every frame he's in. He's loud, he's obnoxious, his accent is atrocious. He's the perfect guy to hate and the ideal subject for ultimate revenge. Even so, focusing just on Gambon would be to discredit the Helen Mirren's performance, who is just as vital to the success of this film. Her role might be more subdued and restrained, but she poses a great (and necessary) counter-weight to the rambling rage of Gambon.
The first half of the film is basically just a build-up, with Greenaway putting all his pieces on the chess board. When he starts moving them around things heat up pretty quickly and by the time the finale is in sight he has everyone in just the right place for a perfect stand-off. It's quite a feat really, considering how confined his working space was, but he pulls it off seemingly effortless. There's a little patience involved at the beginning of the film, but it pays off lavishly if you persevere.
That is, if you appreciate the vulgarities. Even though the film itself is quite refined, its character are everything but. It's a tough film to recommend as it is probably a bit too outrageous for commercial audiences and a smidge too extreme for your classic arthouse fan. If you like your films a little edgy, with some artistic influences though, then The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is probably right up your alley. And as an added bonus, it aged really well, so watch it as soon as you can.