A Dalmatian indulges in a feast of raw meat, surrounded by stray dogs, with an aura reminiscent of the Renaissance Master's chiaroscuro lighting. The camera glides along a 48mm diameter pipe, unveiling a surreal forest of scaffolding tubes. As the camera ascends, a scene emerges: two servants, dressed in vivid red attire, elegantly part a pair of curtains to a vast, near-ethereal, nocturnal and urban space. This is a space tinged in metallic ultramarine blue hues and mist, and resounding with echoing barks, where Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), the eponymous Thief, and his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) make their entrance. Thus begins, memorably, Peter Greenaway’s film.
Here, the Thief and his henchmen, adorned with satin sashes and shirts with collars and ruffled cuffs, subject a defenceless man to a degrading act, evoking the rebellious essence of the Viennese Actionists. This performance unfolds between two trucks - their significance echoing later in the film - amidst a turbulent ambience. The thief's unrelenting voice and belligerent language reverberate ceaselessly, transcending spatial distances, and sharply contrasting with his wife's calm demeanour beneath a lavish feathered hat.
The sequence climaxes at a massive warehouse door that opens into the kitchen of Le Hollandais, the gourmet restaurant destined to be the main backdrop for the ensuing drama. Lasting five minutes, it establishes the film's visual tone, introduces characters and themes, and showcases stylistic components. Serving as a prologue for The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, on its own it foreshadows a vibrant, audacious, and provocatively visceral film crafted with artistic prowess by the British artist and filmmaker Peter Greenaway — alongside cinematographer Sacha Vierny. The camera skillfully navigates scenes ranging from brutality to sensual scenes, with acute attention to references and details, and the socio-political and cultural climate. Moreover, it sets a grimly fitting and mocking tone.
The Dalmatian, meticulously bred in England, emerges as a coveted status symbol - an emblem of refined taste, sin and gluttony, embodying the opulence of Le Hollandais’ main dining room, or perhaps only the pure and sinful facets of Georgina's desire. This breed's resonance spans centuries in painting, ecclesiastical records, and fashion advertising.
The scaffolding tube forest highlights deliberate, exaggerated artificiality. Built at England´s Elstree studios in Hertfordshire, with the tool of the scenic works of the Italian fascist propaganda and the film industry, it adds ironic depth to the production design, akin to theatre. Furthermore, it nods to Fellini's 8½, mirroring societal grandiosity.
The curtains impart the film's theatrical foundation.
The nocturnal urban space doubles as purgatory, a realm of penitence. Located at the rear and entrance of Le Hollandais, it's where Georgina and the Lover (Alan Howard) will face trial, and the decomposing meat in trucks emits a fetid odour. This space's ethereal quality creates a sense of liberation from the opulence and excess that saturates the opening scenes and the entire film.
The spotlight shines on the wardrobe. Comprising of whimsical colour-changing pieces that are particularly reminiscent of the intricate symbolic elements seen in 17th Dutch and Flemish portraits, as well as the fascinating history of the English theatre's connections to the world of fashion, it magnifies the imaginative world of the wealthy bourgeoise. Created by the fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, it accentuates the film's themes and visually striking experience, while also contributing to the surreal and dreamlike atmosphere.
The restaurant stands as the pivotal point around which the storyline revolves, serving as a stage where human appetites and desires, whether for sustenance or passion are both satisfied and ultimately unveiled. Guided by the observant gaze of the compassionate Cook (Richard Bohringer) and his devoted staff, it embodies the epitome of exquisite taste and transforms into a canvas where Greenaway portrays the complexities of authority, yearning, decline and societal deterioration. Over nine days, as menu inter-titles show, it becomes a backdrop for escalating violence.
The narrative unfolds across the restaurant's zones, capturing the ebb and flow of action. It moves back and forth an eerie and colossal medievalesque kitchen, resplendent with shining copper pots and pans, pantries cluttered with un-plucked pheasants, and a fin-de-siècle dining room dressed in bold crimson, and a reproduction of the Flemish Baroque masterpiece The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company (1616). This later reflects the group's dynamics. Simultaneously, a modern ladies’ room hosts the lover´s initial tryst.
The title exposes the allegorical characters, dynamics and situations that drive the story, echoing a certain simplicity and the archetypal themes often found in moral plays and fables.
Celebrated for its opulence, daring narrative, and riveting performances, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover immerses itself in a richly woven fabric of themes encompassing power dynamics, excess and obsession. It also embraces the realm of sensuous refinement and tasteful provocativeness, exploring an intricate interplay between eros and thanatos. Fearlessly examining human behaviour, the film functions both as political commentary and as expressions of emotional intensity, all while exuding an undeniable sense of elegance.
Driven by fervent exasperation, the film parades an incisive critique of the social challenges of its time, with a special focus on the corrosive impact of materialism and avarice from the Thatcherism era. Amid decay, the movie draws inspiration from the roots of theatre, particularly in the intricate weave of John Ford´s Jacobean satirical drama Tis Pity She’s a Whore, echoing early modern theatre banquets as sites of tragedy and chaos.
A notable aspect lies in the juxtaposition of kitchen implements, refined cuisine, fiery talks, whispers, profanity, nudity and passion in close proximity and punctuated by an evocative soundscape characterized by the hypnotic Baroque music of Michael Nyman, combined with the piercing voice of a tenor. This fusion turns the film into a cinematic repast, a rich, indulgent experience filled with gleaming copper, still-life arrangements that come to life, and an atmosphere that oscillates between beauty and the grotesque.
Joana Rafael is an architect and researcher. She focusses on (questions of) ecology, human geography and natural sciences, encompassing contemporary culture, media studies, art and technology, and reflecting on the limits of infrastructure in relation to the functioning of terrestrial systems. She completed a PhD in Visual Culture and a master’s in Research Architecture, both at Goldsmiths (London), and a master’s in Urban Architecture and Culture, from the partnership between Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya and Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona. She provides consultancy to architecture firms and teaches at Escola Superior Artística do Porto.