Never have the elegant and the perverse tangoed so well as they do in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. On the one hand you have Greenaway’s formalism, Sacha Vierny’s sophisticated cinematography, and the haute drapings of the cast and set. On the other you have a steady stream of vulgarities enacted by the tyrannical louse that presides over the film, Albert Spica, the titular Thief. Played with devilish intensity by Michael Gambon, he holds court over his stately pleasure dome, the cavernous restaurant Le Hollandaise. Spica’s as contemptible a character as there ever was, a grotesque and boorish man who inspires such boundless hatred that no fate could possibly seem nasty enough for him. He runs amok across his restaurant, tearing down or sticking a fork in whoever upsets him, followed dutifully by Vierny’s gliding camera, which seems to indulge him as much as he indulges himself. His presence is positively oppressive: to the viewer, to the kitchen staff, and especially to his put-upon wife Georgina.
The twin pleasures of The Cook, The Thief… are food and sex. The former preoccupies Spica’s mind to the point of madness (virtually all his assertions of dominance involve consumption) while it is the later that his wife turns to for reprieve from his reign of terror. Georgina, the icy and alluring Helen Mirren, begins secretly stealing away from dinner to make mad love to a fellow patron of the restaurant, their relations, like the preserved food surrounding them, always walking a fine line between good and bad taste. Of course, the two specialties of Le Hollandaise are destined to collide, and Spica’s discovery of the ongoing affair sets off an outrageous escalation of events leading to the greatest dish of revenged ever served. The most disturbing thing, and that’s surely saying something, is how sweet the catharsis tastes.