The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
Director: Peter Greenaway
Screenwriter: Peter Greenaway
Starring: Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard
Had this film not been recommended by a horror director, I never would have thought to watch it. There’s something about a bunch of celebrated actors coming together that generally worries me – names are used to sell crap just as much as art – but this film is far from awards bait or a cash grab, in fact it may be the furthest thing from that. Greenaway’s culinary drama is one of the darkest films ever put to screen.
Every scene takes place in the same location, a restaurant run by a cruel socialite that likens himself to nobles of England’s past. He treats his employees miserably, abuses his wife and frequently disrupts the dining hall. The story is composed of interactions between the titular characters, the suspense centered on the affair between the wife and her lover, and what her husband will do if they’re caught. Each scene occurs on a different evening, the actions growing darker as characters become more desperate and restless.
The camera travels from the alley to every room of the restaurant. The lights change from green to red as the camera passes through the kitchen, which changes the complexion of characters’ wardrobes. We enter the vast, red dining hall which is both lavishly and morbidly decorated; a giant mural of rich nobles dominates the background of the room, and animal corpses are strewn about, showing the grandiose grotesqueness of the owner’s personality.
It’s the performances that really make this movie however. Michael Gambon (who younger audiences will recognize as Dumbledore in the later Harry Potter films) and Helen Mirren really stand out from the crowd. Gambon plays the Thief and is unafraid to lean into the role; the depths of his depravity are genuinely frightening yet he is able to make the performance enjoyable through the extremity. Mirren makes the biggest change in the film, and her portrayal of a battered wife is quite remarkable. The final, sickening scene, in which Mirren excels, will stay with the stoutest of viewers
Greenaway ultimately shows how important character is to making a film good. It’s easy to become invested in the story when you’re interested in suspenseful character dynamics from the get-go. The unique cinematography and breathtaking set design only add to the experience. If you like films that are dark and disturbing outside of the horror genre, check this out because it might be the peak of such films.