The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (punctuated onscreen as The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover) is a 1989 film written and directed by Peter Greenaway starring Helen Mirren. This black comedy, known as much for its depiction of cannibalism and frontal nudity as for its lavish and often breathtaking cinematography and formalism, was rated X when first released, but was later rated NC-17.
Albert Spica (Gambon) is a violent gangster and part-owner of Le Hollandais, a restaurant which he and his circle of cronies, including his mother (Smith) and favorite to insult (Roth), visit in the evenings. Although Spica has pretensions to be a gourmet, he is in fact coarse in his tastes and ignorant about cuisine, and is also violent and insulting towards the other guests. His head chef Richard (Bohringer) despises him, but also fears him and is obliged to allow him to stay. Spica's wife Georgina (Mirren) is, it transpires, regularly abused by him, and is terrified of him. However, she begins to take an interest in one of the other guests, Michael (Howard), and, with Richard's collusion soon begins an extra-marital affair with him in the kitchen of Le Hollandais.
When Albert is told how stupid he is by Cory's (Hinds) new girlfriend Patricia (Emer Gillespie) for not observing the affair, he threatens to kill, cook and eat Michael, and Michael and Georgina take refuge in Michael's book store where he lives. Albert, however, tortures a young kitchen boy (Russell) who knows their whereabouts and tracks them down. While Georgina is visiting the boy at the hospital, Albert orders Michael killed by having pages of his own books forced down his throat; Albert and his men then leave, and Georgina finds Michael's body.
Georgina brings the body back to Richard and asks him to cook it. At first he refuses, thinking she intends to eat it. However, when she explains that she intends to force feed the body to Albert, he agrees. Georgina, armed and surrounded by several of Albert's other victims, presents Michael's roasted carcass and, holding the gun on him, suggests that Albert "try the cock". Albert doesn't do this specifically but his resistance wears out and he takes a bite of Michael's flesh. Georgina then shoots him, contemptuously calling him "cannibal."
The film presents a conflict between the world of money, and the world of art and culture. It is an explicit criticism of the notion of their interchangeability, and it explores the way culture is debased and treated with contempt by those with money but no taste. The world of money is represented by Spica and his associates, while the world of culture is represented by Michael and Richard. Spica pretends to be a gourmet, but he knows that Georgina is the genuine article. Although he regards her as his possession, he is jealous of her knowledge and her easy familiarity with cuisine. Spica's only means of evaluating anything is by its financial value; when he sees Michael reading a book, he treats him with contempt, asking "does this stuff make any money"? The ultimate expression of Spica's hostility to all that Michael stands for is to have Michael killed by the very thing he loves the most, by making him choke on his own books.
The film was made near the end of Margaret Thatcher's time as Prime Minister, during which the power of the old class-based elites in British government and business had been eroded in favour of people who were financially successful.
Spica is the name of the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo . This appears to associate Albert Spica with the star-counting in Drowning By Numbers. There is also a strong suggestion in the film that Albert Spica is impotent, hence perhaps literally a virgin himself.
Running time/rating controversy
The film's original running time was 124 minutes. It was rated X when first released, but was later rated NC-17. Two versions of the film were released on VHS in the 1990's. One was an R-rated cut running a mere 95 minutes; the other was the original version.