The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover (1989) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I would not suggest this as a date movie. Eating is also a problem, even if you have no date. You probably don't want to eat beforehand, and you won't be able to eat afterward.

The basic story: a rich mobster holds a rude court each night in a restaurant, where he and his hangers-on abuse each other, the staff, and anyone else who crosses their paths, while indulging in various types of excessive behavior. You must understand that their idea of abuse goes far beyond anything you can conceive until you see the movie. The thief says anything and does anything he wants to. For example, the thief also owns the restaurant, and when he is unhappy with his staff, he has a cook stripped naked so he can piss on him and smear him with dog shit.

The thief's long-suffering wife spots a chance for an escape from her life of martyrdom. She spies a bookish intellectual who reads while he eats in an adjoining table. Not long after their eyes meet, they are wildly rutting in the ladies room, wordlessly. Their silence continues until they are introduced formally, after which they are allowed to talk to each other as part of the social ritual of the group, and they fall in love right under the thief's nose, forming their amalgamation each night in a different part of the restaurant.

Mr. Thief does find out eventually, and he is just not happy at all, and I think you have already deduced that he is not a nice man. The lovers manage to escape his pursuit only through the help of the chef. The resolution of the story, the dramatic tension, comes from our involvement in the continuation of the pursuit. Will the thief catch them? What will he do if he does? How will the wife react?

The movie is an extraordinarily artistic success in many ways, especially the superb acting and the arresting visuals. If you are familiar with Greenaway's work, like "A Zed and Two Noughts," "The Pillow Book," "Drowning by Numbers" and others, you realize that he has a unique artistic vision. One can't help but admire his sense of composition, his obsession with symmetry, his ability to bring the principles of painting into film, his experimentation with lighting. In this particular movie, he lends a dominant color treatment to each room, and he actually changes the clothing of the characters when they walk from one room to another, allowing their costuming to reflect the mood lighting for the appropriate room. The set design, typical of Greenaway, is both cluttered and surreal. The kitchen is a vision out of Dante or Bosch. It's impossible to absorb all the details in one viewing, but it is possible to drink in the effects if you just allow the film to deliver its message to you.


Helen Mirren and Alan Howard played a good portion of the film stark naked. All body parts of both are seen in several scenes from all conceivable angles.

There is some other nudity. A man (Wille Ross) is stripped naked in the first scene, and a woman is seen very briefly as her toilet functions are interrupted.

This movie produced some savage negatives in both Peter Greenaway's native England and in America, but for different reasons.

In England, people interpreted the film as propaganda - as an anti-Thatcherite political allegory. The left in England viewed the Thatcher years as many of their American counterparts viewed the parallel Reagan years, as a time of wicked excess when the greed of the rich was indulged by a government willing to side with them at the expense of the working class. The Thief is essentially the Thatcherite plutocrats, pissing on the poor. The wife is England, her ideals betrayed, seduced by one side, then the other, ultimately corrupted. The lover is the ineffectual intellectual class, unable to save England or her workers, despite the best of intentions. The cook is the abused workers. Well, that's the way a lot of English saw it, anyway. They have a point. I guess the film does require an allegorical interpretation, because it doesn't really work on a literal level, For example, why would customers keep coming back to a restaurant where they are terrorized as if they were walking through a subway station in a decaying neighborhood?

Over the big pond, the film stirred up controversy unrelated to its politics. Greenaway is a genuine aesthetic master, but he achieves his vision through means fair and foul. He is not one who believes that art is nothing more than beauty, and the recipe for his films is peppered with nausea, black humor, shock, sex, nudity, and did I mention shock? In addition to what I've already described, this one is filled with the portrayal of graphic sexual appetite, plenty of gross-outs from decaying flesh surrounded by buzzing flies, rotting fish covered with maggots, and even cannibalism. This film is nauseating. And I mean that in the most literal sense, as opposed to, for example, when I say Air Supply is nauseating. Although I've always thought Air Supply should supply Air Bags, or whatever they call those little bags they give you on the plane.

I have written about Peter Greenaway on many occasions. Of all the filmmakers in the world, he is the best, and the worst. I like him best, and I like him least. He is the most brilliant, and the most difficult. He can be like your brilliant son who wants to use his genius to support causes you despise, and who is so much smarter than you that you can't offer any arguments against him. He is not a commercial filmmaker, but an artist, and a great one. Genuine greatness involves great risk. One doesn't get recognized as great by following a safe path already taken and approved by others. And risks don't always produce positive results. That's why they're called risks. Greenaway hangs himself out there and pushes you to the limits of your mind and sometimes your stomach, and he really doesn't care whether you like him or not, or whether he sells any tickets. He follows his vision uncompromisingly, and his recipe is never bland.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterbox, 2.35:1

  • no features

  • not a very good transfer, a major disappointment after the beautiful DVD for "Zed and Two Noughts" 


But at which point in an artist's pursuit of his personal vision does he simply become self-indulgent? Who knows? The answer depends partially on the artist, but less on the artist than on the audience. Sometimes I think Greenaway is dazzling and that no filmmaker in the world can approach him. Five minutes later, I might think he's lost his own way in his surreal world, and he's just dithering.  I think you have to concede this: given the long history of cinema, most of what we see today is a rehash of what has come before. There is very little real originality in the world of film, but Greenaway is an exception. Whether you like him or hate him or both, he is a dyed-in-the-wool original.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 3.5/4, Maltin 3/4

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.0

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