Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

I've never been a big fan of Roger Ebert, but I do "Like" him on Facebook; while I frequently disagree with his opinions, he posts a lot of interesting links to essays and other cool websites.  Another thing Ebert likes to do is call out some of an actor's best work on their birthday; for Helen Mirren, Ebert suggested The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.  I had never heard of the film, but the more movies I see Helen Mirren in, the more I like her, so I gave it a shot.  I'm the sort of person who likes to be surprised by movies, so I usually don't research them before I see them; in the case of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, I probably would have liked a heads up.  This movie is a little artsy-weird.
How can I say such a thing?

Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) is a British mobster (or a thug with underlings, if you don't like that term) with some unique passions.  He loves money, he loves food, and he loves...well, the third one is better left unsaid for now.  He has plenty of money, so he indulges his second passion by owning a fancy French restaurant, even though he doesn't appear to truly like much French food.  Unlike most fans of fine dining, though, Albert likes to force his opinions and tastes upon everyone else.  The film opens with his head chef, Richard (Richard Bohringer), being publicly humiliated --- stripped naked, beaten, peed on, with excrement smeared on his body and shoved in his mouth --- for contradicting Albert.  Everything that Albert does to "improve" the restaurant is gaudy and classless, and he only appears sophisticated next to his boorish underlings. 
His actions even make that claim questionable at times.  Albert and his posse impose themselves upon the restaurant every night, making it a terrible place to work and/or eat.  Accompanying Albert is his wife, Georgina (Helen Mirren), who is sophisticated and does appreciate French cuisine.  Why is she with such a brute?  Well, it appears that she has given up escaping or changing Albert, and has resigned herself to ignoring her surroundings as much as possible.  One night, though, Georgina makes eye contact with another restaurant patron, Michael (Alan Howard), and something changes.  No words are exchanged at first, but they begin a passionate affair, right there in the restaurant, under Albert's nose.
Passionate affairs apparently aren't always fun or glamorous

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a film steeped in directorial intent.  I haven't researched it, so I'm not exactly sure what director Peter Greenaway is commenting on with this movie, but I'll hazard a guess that it has symbolic meanings (and, given the time period and country of origin, probably has something to do with Thatcher).  That's fine and all, but I'm going to concern myself with the film out of the context of the times.  The first thing that struck me about this film is how strange it looks.  The visuals are simply striking.  There are only a few sets in the movie, but they all have their own color scheme and lighting; the restaurant is red, the bathrooms are a spotless white, and the kitchen has kind of a greenish hue.  The sets are enormous; the kitchen looks like a warehouse and the bathrooms are large enough to play soccer in. 
The costumes change as they leave one set for another, too --- and when they don't change, it is supposed to evoke a subtle reaction from the audience.  The film is ripe with symbolism, but of what?  Gluttony?  Passion?  Disgust?  Complete bullshit?  You can make a solid argument for any of these.

I think it is indisputable, though, that Greenaway worked well with his cast.  Michael Gambon --- a classically trained actor, with many Shakespearean credits to his name, along with some Harry Potters --- is thoroughly reprehensible as the boorish Thief of the title.  He's so rude and gross and vulgar that it is easy to forget what a dignified actor he typically is; that's some damn fine acting, right there. 
Bibs: not classy
Helen Mirren was also excellent in a very brave performance; not just any actress would be willing to spend so much time on screen completely nude, especially one that was in her mid-forties at the time.  Her work as the Wife justifies that excess, though.  Her moments on screen with Gambon are filled with self-loathing, but she transforms that into passionate desperation with Alan Howard; she is so convincing in these scenes that her turn toward the end of the film seemed absolutely effortless.  I also liked the vocal style of her shameful monologue to Howard --- it is so hard to speak half-phrases on film naturally, but hers were very believable.  Alan Howard was pretty good as the Lover, providing substance to a role with little dialogue, but I wasn't as impressed with him as I was with Gambon and Mirren. 
***no dialogue***
I was indifferent to Richard Bohringer's Cook.  I'm not quite sure why his character was important enough to be mentioned in the title, but I might have missed something.  Tim Roth is fine as Gambon's most noteworthy henchman, but the character is pretty dumb, so Roth's performance just seemed adequate.  Ciaran Hinds played a supporting character that actually had a bit of a dramatic arc, but he was so far removed from the main plot that it had little impact on the overall story.  There are a few other recognizable faces in the crowd (punk rocker Ian Dury and Harry Potter alum Roger Lloyd-Pack), but they were just role players.

There was a bit of controversy when The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was first released --- the MPAA was going to rate it X, so the filmmakers decided to release it unrated (the modern equivalent would be NC-17), which meant that only adults could see it.  With such an edgy rating, you would think that this film reeked of sexual and violent excess.  It really doesn't.  Yes, there is a decent amount of nudity; Mirren, Howard, and Bohringer all have full-frontal scenes.  These scenes are not meant to be erotic (most of the time), but sad and desperate.  There is violence in the movie, but nothing too gory.
Evil Dead 2 did it so much better
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover received its rating because the sex and the violence had very disturbing, emotional, and frightening undertones.  Oh, and there's some gross fecal content, too.  This is definitely an adult film, but don't mistake that for an exploitative one.

There is a lot of artistic merit in this film, but the big question remains: is it good?  I acknowledge that this film has many technical achievements in film style.  I compliment the main two actors on their excellent performances.  Heck, I even like the surreal settings and soundtrack.  But did I like it?  Not a whole lot, but I think I appreciate it.  The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a hard film to sit through because it is uncomfortable to watch; if you have a different viewing experience, then I would probably not feel comfortable around you in social situations.  And that's fine (the film being uncomfortable, that is), since that was clearly the filmmaker's intent.  Thankfully, that intent stops before the film becomes unwatchable and/or too pretentious for words.  Still, it's a pretty strange trip, and not a very fun one at that.  I think I would have enjoyed the film more if the bizarrely theatrical sets were less obvious; every time I looked at the classical painting in the restaurant, or the enormous size of the bathrooms, or the hobo town appearance of the kitchen, I found myself distanced from the story, and that's a problem for me.  In strictly technical terms, TCTTHW&HL is an impressive piece of work, but it's a piece of craftsmanship that that won't appeal to many.

1 comment:

  1. wow i never actually thought that this would be such a bizarre movie. id heard about it but just sort of dismissed it as another english movie to be honest.