Classic Hollywood Movie Spotlight: ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her LoverI wanted to bring in a classic Thanksgiving movie, but honestly, I just couldn’t find one that made the grade. There are a lot of great Christmas movies out there, but Thanksgiving doesn’t fare so well. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because at this point, Thanksgiving’s just about eating. Whatever mythology once surrounded our most American holiday has been drowned in a sea of ethical repositioning. So instead of thinking about Thanksgiving movies, I thought about eating movies.

Which led me immediately to this week’s classic movie: 1989’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is a legendary art-house movie, one that helped usher in the growth of independent cinema in the 1990s and cement the ability of Miramax to successfully market such fare. Greenaway, who like Stanley Kubrick used to be a painter, rendered his story with lustrous composition and color, telling his multilayered tragic melodrama with the sure hand of an artist who can render his aesthetic with virtuosic flair.

It was also released as “unrated” so as to avoid the initial X rating given by the MPAA — which meant nobody under 18 could see it. At the time I was something like 15 when the movie came to the ActI/II in downtown Berkeley. I’m not sure how my buddy Jaron and I heard about The Thief, but we managed to convince his parents to go see it with us. British cinema, art, all that hoity-toity stuff — I imagine it seemed like a good idea to Grandma and Grandpa until the film started to roll.

The first thing you see in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is a naked man being pasted with dog poo at the behest of the titular thief (played, incidentally, by Albus Dumbledore himself, Michael Gambon). My friend Jaron’s grandfather was a brilliant and eccentric inventor who was such an old-school nerd that he had a pocket protector. I still remember him watching this opening scene, giggling like a little boy. Jaron’s grandmother, a woman of profound class and good humor, didn’t find it so amusing, but kept it to herself, indulging her husband and grandson.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her LoverThe movie itself manages to do two things at the same time: be unashamedly pretentious and sublimely beautiful. One of Jarman’s conventions involves color. Most of the movie takes place in a restaurant. Each room of this restaurant brings a different color palate, and the character’s clothing changes accordingly. When the wife of the title (the eternally alluring Helen Mirren) walks from the kitchen to the dining room to the bathroom, her evening gown changes color as well. The movie is full of such arresting images, building with a steady confidence up to the final, disturbing, inevitable conclusion.

If you want to change up the family holiday viewing experience, this is the movie to watch. Although if you do choose this as your Thanksgiving movie, be sure to watch it after all the food’s been eaten. Trust me on that.