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‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’ (NC-17)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 06, 1990

British director Peter Greenaway's "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," treats the ugliest content imaginable in the most beautiful way possible. Give or take another masterpiece coming down the pike, this intricately assembled, viscerally provocative tract on consumerism gone full and grisly circle, is without a doubt, the most accomplished, astounding film of the year.

That ugly content begins immediately when, in "Cook's" shocking, opening sequence, protection-racketeer Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), with his henchmen around him, forces a slow-paying shopowner to eat excrement, then urinates on the hapless man, before rolling in to Le Hollandais, a gourmet restaurant the crude-tongued philistine has decided to patronize.

The film's scatalogical -- and other graphic -- horrors continue, as Spica, the Thief of the title, and one of the cinema's most awesomely evil creations (only Dennis Hopper's Frank in "Blue Velvet" comes malevolently close), conducts a reign of cloacal, social-climbing terror over his wife (a serenely desperate Helen Mirren), his gang of louts, the restaurant's customers and its staff, headed by a quietly willful French chef (Richard Bohringer).

Things take a few grim -- and vengefully fitting -- turns for the worse when Mirren, with desperate (and uncoy) vigor, takes a lover (Alan Howard) right under her maniacal husband's nose; Spica gets wind of the affair and the battle lines are drawn.

But, in the manner of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," where the objectionable is a facetious metaphor for social commentary, Greenaway, best known for "The Draughtsman's Content" and "A Zed and Two Noughts," places these alarming activities in the context of a grand, multiple-themed design, that is an unblinking treatment of a world sinking in its own moral -- and literal -- putrescence. "Cook" touches upon, among other Greenaway obsessions, religious themes, the French Revolution, Thatcherian England, Jacobean drama, Dutch paintings, the theater of cruelty and the Darwinian inevitability of rotting.

What would be pure smut by itself, in this allegorical light, becomes a thing of beauty -- aberrant beauty perhaps, but beauty nonetheless.

That beauty extends to "Cook's" visual design. With cinematographer Sacha Vierny, production designers Ben Van Os and Jan Roelfs, and costume designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, Greenaway has created a stunning repast of thematically colored sets and garments, in which characters' costumes magically change as they walk from, for instance, the fecund-green scheme of the kitchen to the outlandish, pompous reds of the main dining area, where Spica and his gang (dressed haute Jacobean) like to hold forth.

The Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board, which regularly waves bloodbath spectacles such as "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon II" into R-rated territory, has stopped "Cook" at the taste border with an X -- a ruling that will result in reduced media coverage, advertising and theater distribution for the film, and will scare a lot of moviegoers away. It's an undeserved setback for a great film.

Copyright The Washington Post

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