Movies & TV / Columns

Nether Regions 09.28.10: The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover

September 28, 2010 | Posted by Chad Webb

Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask “Why should I care about a film I have no access to?” My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.



Starring: Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, and Tim Roth
Directed By: Peter Greenaway
Written By: Peter Greenaway
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Date: April 6, 1990
Missing Since: 2001
Existing Formats: Region 1 DVD and VHS
Netflix Status: Not Available
Availability: Very Rare

The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover is the cinematic equivalent of a spicy food dish. It’s not for everyone, but it has a lot of distinct tastes to offer those who are willing to venture out of their comfort zone. That opening line might be more appropriate than you think considering the plot takes place almost entirely in a restaurant. This is a picture for people who enjoyed Lars von Trier’s Anti Christ, and since I fall into this category, I found The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover to be a mesmerizing, hilarious, and wickedly intense experience.

You might notice the way I typed the title. This seems to be a source of confusion for viewers, but I have displayed it how it appears in the opening credits and on the official website. The grammatically correct way would include commas and would take out some of the capitalizations. To each his own I guess. Sadly I must confess that the version I am reviewing is the edited cut that clocks in at 95 minutes. The other version is 124 minutes. Both were released on video, but this is what I was sent. I would like to be picky, but these out of print titles tend to be expensive. This is a perfect film for Criterion to release. Someone who works there needs to make that happen because the VHS copy I watched was in dire need of an audio and video upgrade.

Spica listens angrily as
Georgina reveals too
much personal information.

Because of the explicit content, and the fact that writer/director Peter Greenaway refused to make certain edits, the MPAA gave Miramax a choice on either an unrated version or an X-rated version. The studio wanted to avoid the X rating that was associated with pornographic films, so they opted for the unrated route which is for adults only. Yes, this is a gutsy film that contains violence, nudity, vulgarity, and much more. The first scene involves dog excrement so you should know what’s coming. The difference between The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover and say, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Caligula, or Fellini’s Satyricon is that the graphic nature means something. This is not gross just to be gross.

Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) is our thief, an English gangster that has taken over a high-class French restaurant called Le Hollandais, which is run by French chef (the cook) Richard Borst (Richard Bohringer). Spica eats at the restaurant every day and brings his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) and band of thugs with him. Spica and his men engage in confrontations with the staff, the customers, and themselves frequently, all the while maintaining a very tight leash on his quiet wife. Despite this, she begins an affair with an erudite bookshop owner named Michael (Alan Howard) right under Spica’s nose. As the week goes by, we are privy to the menu selection for each day. To see what they offer, click here. Ultimately, Spica learns of the adultery and goes berserk. With the aid of Richard the chef, Georgina and Michael must hide out as long as possible.

The satirical nature of the story, the scatological humor, and the roles of the titular characters all combined into an idea that Peter Greenaway laced carefully into his final cut. He did this so well that upon its initial release, The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover sparked frequent debates on “what it’s really about.” When a filmmaker accomplishes this in a way that leads us to believe he had a specific aim and was not just posturing, it can be extremely revitalizing to avid moviegoers. The fact that it is so thought-provoking and not too desperate to be a complex puzzle is one of its strongest and most accessible qualities. Greenaway has fashioned a darkly comical allegory that can be tackled from many angles and be enjoyed from basically all of them.

The most prominent theory is that he placed the conservative British government of Margaret Thatcher in his crosshairs. She was in power from 1975 – 1990 and in the mid to late 80’s, a system of taxation was passed that favored the rich and placed the burden on the poor. It was vastly unpopular of course. It led to people not paying, which resulted in harsher punishments, which in turn led to riots. The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover hit theaters at the tail end of all this, and was analyzed with the four key players occupying parts relating to that chaotic period. In boils down like this: The Cook is a dutiful citizen that obeys orders. The Thief represents Thatcher and the greedy that plagued the country. The Wife adheres to the notion of Brittania, and Her Lover is the ineffective leftist opposition who only complains about wanting a change and never actually take steps to seeing it through. The descriptions I laid out can be found on various sites and in Roger Ebert’s review. He then counters that Greenaway wanted to be more general, striving to point out this problem with the times as a whole.

I would disagree with him. The year is just too coincidentally close to the Poll Tax Riots for Greenaway’s approach to be about how governments everywhere support the rich and are strict to the poor. His genius is in the subtlety with which he communicates this message. I think some may give him a smidgen more credit than he deserves, but the fact is The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover is sharp in how it suggests its underlying meaning. Others have stated that Greenaway crafted it all around the impossibility of finding a fixed objective, that the imprecision of meaning was the purpose all along. Again, I think this transforms Greenaway into a writer/director who is too big for his britches. One’s gut reaction should be that he was knocking Thatcherites, and usually that is a safe bet.

The acting is superlative from top to bottom, but almost two-thirds of the film belongs to Michael Gambon’s Albert Spica. He never stops talking, but every sentence, rant, insult, and verbal lashing that spews from his mouth is absolutely riveting. It is the best performance I have seen Gambon give to date. This is a person who revels in the damage and pain he causes others. This seems to be his fuel. Whenever anyone tries to bite back, it only adds gasoline to his fiery temper. Gambon is a true professional, someone who always impresses audiences, but here his level of bravery exceeds anything one could ever dream of. His tendency to go over the top increases and swells with rage as the film progresses, but he always exaggerates with conviction.

Georgina and Michael
meet secretly
in red.

At this juncture in her career, Helen Mirren was known mostly for the terrific Prime Suspect series. Mirren mostly sits obediently beside Spica, but truly accentuates her skills in the sex scenes, which are sensuously captured by Greenaway. She compliments Gambon beautifully and observing how she is molded into a new woman by the jaw-dropping conclusion is fascinating. The rest of the cast is harder to rate. Alan Howard does his job with a personality opposite of Spica. Richard the chef needs only to convince onlookers that he is one, and his casual strolls through the dining room as customers eat fades him into the background appropriately. Ciaran Hinds and Tim Roth can also be spotted in stable supporting roles.

The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover is also a masterpiece of style and formalism. It is exceedingly animalistic, but its visuals augment the rest of the components. The colors change depending on what room we’re in. The dining room is red, the bathroom is white, and the kitchen is green. The costumes correlate with the color of the location so the cinematography from Sacha Vierny is just as intriguing and entrancing as the plot. The mural on the back wall of the restaurant is also hard to ignore. It is not a particularly exciting image, but it demands to be seen during the action. It is “The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia of Haarlem” by Frans Hals. Some characters wear outfits seen in the painting. If this wasn’t sufficient, the score from Michael Nyman is imposing and superb. His compositions heighten every scene necessary, especially when Spica grabs Georgina for a beating in the car.

The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover is a challenging film to endure. It provokes without hesitation, and commands more attention from its audience than they are used to affording. When it was over I had the urge to watch it again just to catch anything I might have missed. This is gory, the language is crude, and you will see cruel torture, cannibalism, and rotting meat, but it is not defined by these outlandish aspects. Every nook and cranny of Peter Greenaway’s vision is passionate, whether it be a vicious tirade from Spica or a couple making love as duck feathers float about. It’s exuberant, disgusting, and transfixing.

I hate to say this was my introduction to Greenaway, but I definitely plan on renting more from his canon soon. Knowing the rating issues I outlined above and taking into account the films I’ve compared The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover to, you should already know if you want to seek this out, but I heartily recommend it if you can track it down.

Final Rating = 9.0/10.0

Out of Print
The Heartbreak Kid
The Taking of Pelham 123 (1998-TV)
The Stepfather 3
America, AmericaAvailable 11/09 in a Elia Kazan box set
Salem’s Lot
Latin Lovers
State Fair (1933)
Sleuth (1972)
Johnny Guitar
Children of the Corn 2: The Final Harvest
High Noon Part II: The Return of Will Kane
The Prehysteria! Trilogy
Only Yesterday
Ocean Waves
The Little Norse Prince
Breaking the Waves
Cruel Story of Youth
The Magnificent Ambersons
Two Rode Together
The Portrait of a Lady
The Unholy Three
King Solomon’s Mines (1937)
Richard Burton’s Hamlet
Orson Welles’ Othello
Love with the Proper Stranger

Now Available
The African Queen
A Return to Salem’s Lot – Available Through Warner Archives
Phantasm II
Red Cliff Part 1 and Part 2 – All Versions Available
The Stepfather
The Stepfather 2

Random Thoughts

-I must apologize for not delivering a column last week, but it was the first time I watched a movie I thought to be out of print, but actually was available. That movie was William Lustig’s Maniac from 1980, and I didn’t really care for it. I knew an anniversary edition was on the way, and assumed any previous releases were out of print. I was wrong, and in retrospect, I’m not sure why I thought it was out of print.

-I just finished the 9-part documentary The Civil War from Ken Burns, and I have to say it’s one of the greatest achievements I’ve ever seen. That’s a large statement, but I mean it. So many documentaries these days are manipulative and biased, but Burns proves that you can educate people, move them, and inspire them by conveying material in a straightforward manner. I can’t wait to watch more of his efforts. His new documentary, The Tenth Inning, a follow-up to his 9-part Baseball series, airs this week.

-I wanted to write about this last week, but Linkin Park’s new album, A Thousand Suns, is every bit as bad as the review on 411’s music zone made it out to be. I liked a total of 2 songs. The rest was an incredibly generic, mediocre, and overly slow series of songs that make me wonder what the band was thinking. A new sound is one thing, but this strikes me as severly misguided. I also bought Weezer’s Hurley, which is pretty solid overall.

-As for movies on DVD, it has been a slow week. I watched the first half of the first season of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job because their DVD covers keep catching my eye and I wanted to see what it was exactly. It’s a sketch variety show, and is sporadically funny, but also very dumb at times. I’m glad I checked it out, but won’t be revisiting it any time soon.

-It was announced that Roman Polanski is making God of Carnage with Jodie Foster, Matt Dillon, Kate Winslet, and Christoph Waltz. Opinions on Polanski aside, this is outstanding news. I loved the play, and can’t wait to see what this cast does with the material. And one of the greatest rumors in history has Chuck Norris, Oliver Gruner, and Lorenzo Lamas in The Expendables 2. Please let this happen.

-Also, Kenny Powers rocks.

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“The plural of Chad is Chad?”
–From the movie Recount


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