Bucket List Movie #449: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)
I was told that years of watching Game of Thrones would prepare me for this movie.
I was not prepared. But that's my own fault. I guess I don't have the stomach for Peter Greenaway's divisive magnum opus, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. A quarter of a century after its release, this starling black comedy is still as shocking and disgusting as ever. But what do I know? It sits comfortably at 90% at Rotten Tomatoes, and I'm certainly not a professional critic, so that probably means they know something I don't. I'm just a conventional-minded bore, I guess. Prudish and uncultured, that's me. I just don't "get it", as they say...
Ah, the hell with it!
Why should I apologize for having my own point of view? Shouldn't we make a concerted effort to respect each other's opinions, even if we vehemently disagree with them, especially for something as trivial as movies? I've bitten my tongue while parents forbid their children from watching Disney's Pinocchio or The Wizard of Oz, because they're "scary" (yet fart and poop jokes in contemporary kids' films don't bother them at all). I button my lip when people proclaim that the Jim Carrey version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas is superior to the animated one. And did I pass judgement at the person who told me that Super Troopers, not Casablanca, was the greatest film ever made? No (not to his face, anyway)! I let them say what they want, so I should be granted the same courtesy, dammit! Just because I don't always see the appeal of something, why does that make me wrong? I'm just one person, a grain of sand in the desert of humanity, so who cares what I think? On the whole, I found The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover foul, repulsive, gratuitous, and I thought its infamous, acclaimed ending was unnecessarily prolonged and anticlimactic. I hated this movie, and if that means I don't get it, then, well, I don't get it!
In honor of the 4th of July, and that magical thing known as the First Amendment, I'm going to exercise my God-given free speech!
The plot is pretty simple: Lovely Georgina (Helen Mirren) is married to two-bit gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon). You think you know disgusting, repugnant, psychotic, nightmarishly vile characters? You ain't seen nothin' yet, my friends. How to best describe Albert? Imagine Hannibal Lector without the wit, Joffrey Baratheon without the restraint, the flatulent emperor from Dune without the elegance, and Monty Pyton's Mr. Creosote without the table manners. Make no mistake, Albert is quite simply the worst. He's not even at the bottom of the barrel; his loathsomeness makes him a class all his own.
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE FAINT OF HEART TO AVOID!! DON'T SAY I DIDN'T WARN YOU!!
I'll give Greenaway this: he has one of the best character establishing moments ever, and it's in the opening scene, no less. The film opens with Albert and his many goons force feeding our titular cook Richard (Richard Bohringer) dog feces. Yup, you read that correctly. My husband, who saw this film about ten years ago, assured me this was only from a distance.
Bless him, but he was wrong. We get an up close and personal shot of poor, naked, hapless Richard being fed and smeared with dog crap, then left alone and humiliated in a parking lot. If you make it past that scene, well, don't plan your next meal, because there's still two hours to go.
Anyway, Albert has essentially muscled his way into co-ownership with a restaurant. Richard the cook has to buy meat from Albert's stock rather than his own, so Albert can finagle finances. But that's as far as Albert's cleverness goes, as he spends every night at the restaurant, loudly boasting of his (nonexistent) knowledge of fine cuisine, while bullying his cronies, his wife, and even the other patrons. No one is safe from his boorish wrath.
Georgina is understandably miserable being married to a foul creature like Albert. By the way, I love how plot summaries describe her as being "bored with her oafish husband", as if Albert were some lovably clumsy doofus rather than being, you know, a friggin' monster. One night, while eating at the restaurant, she meets Michael (Alan Howard), a shy, unassuming man who always dines alone with only a pile of books for company. There is an instant connection, leading to nightly trysts in the ladies' room and/or the kitchen. Albert, brainiac that he is, takes his sweet time figuring out what his wife is up to, but when he does, rest assured it does not end well.
Albert and his goons torture and then murder poor Michael by stuffing pages of his favorite book down his throat and up his nose. Georgina is more pissed than heartbroken, and comes up with the perfect revenge for her murderous, phony connoisseur husband: she convinces Richard to cook Michael's corpse, then conspires to make Albert to eat him. This is elaborately staged at the restaurant, as Albert is forced at gunpoint, surrounded by everyone's he abused, humiliated or tortured, to ingest the perfectly roasted and prepared body of the man he killed. Albert, who finally has the fear of God in his heart, takes a trembling mouthful before Georgina shoots him down dead. End of movie.
I said before that I had issues with the ending. Why? Isn't it artistic, exciting, and a wonderful comeuppance? Not to me, no. Why did Georgina have Richard go through the gruesome trouble of cooking her dead lover's body, then forcing Albert to eat it, if she was just going to shoot him dead anyway?! Doesn't this beg the question why she didn't just shoot Albert dead ages ago? Wouldn't the more satisfying ending be that Albert takes a bite and, so horrified by what's going on, drops dead of a heart attack, and then Georgina shoots him, just to make a point? To stage this artsy-fartsy revenge scenario, only to have our villain be brought down by something as pedestrian a bullet, stinks of overachievement. I can't help but picture Greenaway as that kid who didn't just hand in a perfect paper, but gave the teacher a cupcake as well, just to make doubly sure his classmates looked bad.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover left a nasty taste in my mouth (pardon the expression). Some critics saw it as a metaphor for the Tories taking over England. Whatever, all I saw was an overlong, self-indulgent excuse to put despicable characters onscreen and see what our reaction would be. I cared somewhat about Georgina and Michael, but even when Michael is murdered, Georgina isn't that distraught, so it was hard to connect emotionally after that.
That doesn't mean I can't give this movie its due: for better or worse, Greenaway does give the film a wonderfully stylistic, avant-garde look by having specific color schemes for various locations. The exterior of the restaurant is nuclear green, while the interior is an aggressive red. And Albert and Georgina's clothes change color depending on where they are (red in the restaurant, white in the bathroom), while normal Michael always remains in a simple brown suit, regardless of where he is. I must say, it's a bit refreshing that the nice, shy guy is the "other man" for a change, and the preferable choice. Sure, you could argue that Michael is a little dull, but isn't that better than fearing for your life and sanity on a daily basis?
Helen Mirren is awesome as always, and there's nothing I can say about her that hasn't been said already. Instead, I want to focus on the most fearless performance in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, given by Michael Gambon. Gambon is one of the busiest, most charming and versatile character actors ever, and, like the late Bob Hoskins, he can effortlessly switch between avuncular and sleazy. Gambon starred on the legendary mini-series The Singing Detective, and he's best known to younger audiences as Dumbledore. That's right, the sickening mob boss from today's BLM was also Hogwarts's beloved headmaster. Gambon assumed the beard and pointy hat of Harry Potter's kindly mentor after Dumbledore's original actor, Richard Harris, died in 2002. Gambon is nothing short of courageous in his portrayal of Albert: he beats his wife, tortures everyone (even children), runs over animals, and pretty much abuses anyone who makes the mistake of existing. Actors either shy away or lunge at the opportunity to play this kind of irredeemable, bestial villain, and Gambon disappears into the role brilliantly. While most villains are played by handsome men oozing with charisma, Gambon refuses to make Albert in any way appealing, and the fact that I averted my eyes whenever he was onscreen is proof of how successful he was.
Still, I hated knowing I wasted two hours of my life watching a movie so heartless and pointless. I won't be watching it again, even if it does have its strengths. See it only if you have a stomach of iron.
That being said, have a safe and happy 4th of July, and feel free to have that hot dog! It can't be as awful as what Albert eats!