The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and her Lover is one of the most macabre movie experiences I've ever had. It is a film so drenched in gothic red colors, Jacobian theatrics, and wonderful performances, that one can't be surprised Greenaway had as much influence from 16th century tragedies as he did from filmmakers such as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Set at the eloquent but menacing restaurant "La Hollandaise", CTWL follows a week in the life of hapless wife (Mirren) who is constantly abused verbally and physically by the Immense terror that is her husband Albert Spica (Michael Gambon). And what an immense terror he is! From the very first scene we realize we are no longer in PG land as Spica humiliates a man by covering him in dog feces and then spending the rest of the night gallavanting at the highest level of obnoxiousness with his slimy henchmen. Mirren, miserable as anyone could imagine, finds a fresh romance in a local patron at the restaurant: Michael (Alan Howard). We, the audience, want the relationship to work, but the menacing undertones of the cinematography hint towards a much darker fate.
There are several qualities that make CTWL a film worth owning. One being the acting: Michael Gambon's performance here is one of legendary status. After watching this film, it amazes me that I have never seen Albert Spica on any "Top Villains lists". From the very first scene we just want to see him dead. My love for Helen Mirren was confirmed with her performance as Georgina. I had seen and loved her in O'Lucky Man, The Queen, and Caligula (I know, I know) but the minute she muttered that famous bad a-- last line I was just googly eyed. The cinematography is also to be adored. It's as if Edgar Allen Poe became a Set designer. Loads of black, mixed with red and plenty of shots that show exquisite depth. The allusions to the Thatcher adminstration that are said to be seen in the plot completly flew over my head, but then again I'm no expert on English Politics.
Due to its infamous climax and candid use of nudity, CTWL has repeatedly been named one of the most shocking films of its era. And while I found the nude-rotten meat truck scene to be quite unsettling I found this film to be a beautiful tribute to old tradgedies such as "Tidus Andronicus" and "The White Devil". And although Spica alone is quite appalling, the film didn't quite reach the stomach-churning heights of "Cannibal Holocaust" or "Salo" (That is not a bad thing). If you are looking for a delicious food movie, go rent Mostly Martha. If you want a gothic tragedy that just happens to be set a restaurant look no further then this gem from Greenaway.