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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 24.44%
Average: 2.22%
Pretty Bad: 2.22%
Total Crap: 8.89%

2 reviews, 33 user ratings

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Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, The
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by Rob Gonsalves

"An act of self-defense."
4 stars

Thirty years ago this month, we in America began to hear of something dark and alluring, a British film with a title worthy of Grimm: 'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.'

Those of us who caught it in an art-house theater, with an actual audience, remember the hushed noises around us. It was a weird crowd. Viewers accustomed to rather more genteel and artsy fare were confronted with images of sex and violence; viewers with a thorough grounding in exploitation flicks were confronted with allusions to great painters and dramatists. Either way it was a confrontation. Does it say anything today, though? And really, did it ever?

I’m not a Cook, Thief hater. Its creator, writer-director Peter Greenaway, crafted an extraordinary — and extraordinarily memorable — fable about art and love adrift in a cruel world of … of what? Consumerism? Capitalism? Thatcherism? Cook, Thief can be an attack on whatever you want it to be an attack on. But is it really an attack, or more like self-defense? Certainly the second character in the title — the thief, crude gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) — seems meant to stand in for ugliness and brutality wherever we may find it. Spica sits in his favorite restaurant, which he has also bought, and spews about disgusting topics as though he were a naughty little boy testing the patience of his elders. But no one dares to push back at him; doing so may get you stabbed in the face with a fork, or taken out to the parking lot and smeared with dog excrement.

Whatever narrative tension there is in Cook, Thief derives from Spica’s abused and soul-tired wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), who loathes Spica and has her eye on a literally bookish man, Michael (Alan Howard). Michael comes to the restaurant each night, reading about the French Revolution over the meals prepared by the head chef, Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer), who also hates Spica. If Cook, Thief belongs to anyone other than Greenaway, it’s Mirren, who wrestles the movie away from Greenaway’s often pompous clutches and invests it with recognizable human emotion — even during a late scene that goes on forever and spoils what might be, in a “lesser” film by Greenaway’s lights, the big twist. If you’ve never seen the movie or haven’t for years, you will come away from it with an even deeper-seated respect for Mirren, who does her damnedest in a largely unwritten role. Greenaway, it seems, doesn’t do humans any more than his opposite number — say, Michael Bay — does.

Yet it’s this very tension between humanity and the film’s rigorous scheme — between life and art — that digs its hooks into our memories. The lurid cruelties that Greenaway lingers over, out of perhaps some disdainful conviction that this is what the mass audience wants, help to file the movie on a rarefied art-exploitation shelf alongside, say, Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant or Darren Aronofsky’s mother!. I don’t mind Greenaway’s fixation on art. I actually prefer his Belly of an Architect, made two years before Cook, Thief, and not just because Brian Dennehy dominates it brilliantly. There’s a compassion, a generosity of spirit, in it that’s missing from Cook, Thief. But by the time Greenaway made this film, he’d been in the business and dealing with money men for enough years that his experience, I suspect, informed the Juvenalian satire here.

Cook, Thief was the first film by Greenaway distributed in America by Miramax, which at that point was building a reputation as a tony studio specializing in prestigious works from the indie scene and from abroad. After the movie’s success — driven by all the buzz about its ghastly content — Miramax got into the Greenaway business briefly, with Prospero’s Books and Drowning by Numbers. Nowadays, of course, Miramax is associated with far more sinister things than a movie featuring vomit and shit and corpse-munching. The bearded, balding Albert Spica, with his potato face, his violently menacing swagger, his ferocious misogyny, and his deafening contempt for anything uppity while conspicuously consuming fine food (art food!) only to shit it out later, strikes me in 2020 as nothing so much as Greenaway’s prescient portrait of Harvey Weinstein. Viewed as a metaphor for Greenaway the cook’s hatred of the slimy vulgarians he had to prepare exquisite dishes for in order to continue to cook at all, Cook, Thief takes on considerable thematic weight.

And who among us can object to the way Greenaway deals with his Weinstein, by putting the means of revenge not in the cook’s hand, finally, but in the wife’s?

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originally posted: 06/09/20 06:12:04
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User Comments

4/21/18 Louise Horrible but so beautifully made, you can't help but be suckered in. Superb. 5 stars
3/28/15 stanley welles a brilliant, intelligent and powerful movie 5 stars
2/19/07 William Goss Overly theatrical melodrama is admirable, but highly abrasive. Great use of widescreen. 4 stars
11/14/06 Charles Tatum A dreary bore 1 stars
8/25/05 Jerry in Gladstone This movie was absolutely terrible, possibly the worst I've ever seen 1 stars
8/16/05 Kyle Wonderful. 5 stars
3/16/05 dbx visual masterpiece 5 stars
5/17/04 Pinkline Jones I'll Never Eat Another Barbecued Chicken 4 stars
3/28/04 john bizarre and wonderful - feels more like a piece of music than a conventional movie 5 stars
12/01/03 Stephen Knight A masterpiece of rage cloaked in the lush tones of a Vermeer. 5 stars
11/18/03 Genna Grushovenko beautiful film 5 stars
1/20/03 Jack Sommersby Simply brilliant. A colorful, orgiastic filmgoing delight! The photography is genius. 5 stars
5/22/02 Sheila Evans Complains about wiping someone's ass, though that could never be as bad as watching this mo 1 stars
4/13/02 sue it was all right a little gross 4 stars
1/15/02 Gennadiy Grushovenko This is a true work of art 5 stars
12/05/01 john linton roberson Brill. 5 stars
12/03/01 shep great stuff from greenaway 4 stars
11/26/01 t k truly original 5 stars
7/11/01 Graham Bradley Provoking and darkly intriguing, more Greenaway please! 5 stars
7/01/01 Libor Manak the best film I've ever seen 5 stars
6/30/01 Judith Latham An amazing beautiful satirical symbolic film. Greenaway is a genius. 5 stars
4/22/01 dimoc klasiko 5 stars
2/07/01 Dave Hauslein A structuralist masterpiece 5 stars
2/07/01 m Simply put, it is the best film I have ever watched, and re-watched. Greenaway's masterpiec 5 stars
1/13/01 Dizaner Leone Truly engaging cinema. 5 stars
8/13/00 hamed sarrafizadeh it was so amazing 3 stars
7/10/00 Polychem Ultra Violence and Fine Dining, who could ask for more? 5 stars
1/19/00 PervertedPixie Warped and wonderful- shades of Delicatessen. This is seriously sick shit! 5 stars
10/18/99 Suzanne Greenaway's films aren't pretentious...they're just not Runaway Bride. 5 stars
10/16/99 John Roberson A fucking masterpiece 5 stars
10/13/99 JonnyAngel one big fart of a movie 1 stars
10/06/99 strike Like all of Greenaway`s movies it is very pretentious, but this one is also very watchable. 4 stars
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  06-Apr-1990 (NC-17)
  DVD: 13-Mar-2001

  02-Sep-1990 (18)

  02-Nov-1990 (R)

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