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DCA Archive

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

Artist's Choice

Where possible, we invite artists exhibiting in DCA galleries to select a film to screen in our Cinema. To coincide with her exhibition Places We Think We Know, Mary McIntyre has chosen The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

“Peter Greenaway is probably the single most influential film director with regards to my work,” explains Mary, “I struggled to choose between The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and The Draftsman’s Contract. But in the end the sense of spectacle and the stylistic use of interiors in the former won out in my choice.”

Peter Greenaway is the definition of a Marmite filmmaker. But whether you love or hate his unashamedly formalist approach to filmmaking it is impossible to deny that he is a true original. His 1982 debut, The Draughtsman’s Contract, set the tone for what was to follow: visually stunning films which foregrounded their own artifice and privileged references to art history, cryptic dialogue, and visual and verbal puns and games over any conventional sense of narrative. But his reputation for being a cold, intellectual filmmaker is somewhat unfounded. In fact, his films can be visceral, hot-blooded and darkly funny. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, his most famous, accessible, and controversial work.

“…visceral, hot blooded and darkly funny”

The Cook (Richard Bohringer) is a French chef whose London restaurant is frequented by the wealthy but vulgar Thief (Michael Gambon), whose sensitive and abused wife (Helen Mirren) begins an affair with a quiet and cultured fellow patron (Alan Howard). But when they are caught, things get bloody. Taking its cue from Jacobean revenge tragedies, the film is a smorgasbord of sex and violence with a drizzle of cannibalism. It’s undeniably strong stuff. The American censors felt it necessary cut nearly thirty minutes (a quarter of the film) before they would issue it with an “R” rather than “X” rating. But there is far more going on here. Like all Greenaway’s films, The Cook, The Thief… is a feast for the eyes, ears and mind. With its colour coordinated sets by Jan Roelfs and Ben Van Os that conjure up the Dutch Masters (especially Frans Hals), stylised costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier, and exquisite cinematography by Sasha Vierny (who camera literally glides through walls), the film is a visual marvel. The extraordinary score by Greenaway’s frequent collaborator, Michael Nyman, was composed before filming began, and the movie was shot and cut to its rhythms, which lends it a suitably operatic quality. And scratch the surface and you will find a sharp and savage attack on the conspicuous consumption and anti-intellectualism that blighted the Thatcher years.

Greenaway will always be an acquired taste, and if you haven’t already done so, seeing this film and the big screen is the best way to acquire it.