Boisterous criminal Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) has taken over management of a restaurant run by French chef Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer), who is none too impressed with his new boss’ outboasts, dietary preferences, associates or indeed his general behaviour. The only element of Spica that Richard doesn’t detest is his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), whose refined palette and sense of poise make her a joy to cook for. Georgina shares similar feelings as Richard towards her husband, who publicly berates, belittles and beats her, so it’s no surprise when her eyes wander to the educated, civilised stranger (Alan Howard) who dines alone at the restaurant. Georgina and the man begin a silent affair right under her husband’s nose, but surely this cannot last without someone’s fingers getting burned?
There are few things more frustrating in life than a DVD cover that spoils the climax of the very film contained within its case, yet such a travesty occurred with The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, with a key and potentially shocking visual gleefully plastered across the top of the case’s rear. Fortunately certain elements are difficult to work out so it’s not entirely clear who the victim of this event is, but it isn’t long into the film where enough context clues have been provided to make it all but impossible to ascertain what is going to happen.
The film opens on a car park outside of a restaurant, with Gambon’s Albert harassing a man who has wronged him in some way – it turns out he is a chef who served food that didn’t live up to Albert’s requirements – and his torture involves being beaten up, having dog faeces smeared all over his body and in his mouth, before being urinated on by Albert himself, all in front of the boss’ lackeys and horrified wife. It’s a pretty great, if nauseating, set-up and establishment to both the kind of acts we’ll be witness to throughout the film and the character of Albert Spica, easily one of the most detestable creatures ever committed to film. This is a man with seemingly no redeemable aspects to his character. At dinner he holds court loudly and profanely, rarely allowing air to enter the non-existent gaps in his vacuous tirades. To follow Mirren’s Georgina away from the table is to experience a welcome respite of silence, a much-needed distance from Albert’s vulgarity. Some of the his acts throughout the film, especially those directed towards his wife and a fair-skinned singing boy who washes the dishes in the kitchen, are utterly repulsive, making him an easy guy to hate and someone whose comeuppance cannot come quickly enough.
Stylistically there’s a lot to discuss here, particularly with regard to the visuals. The main set is laid out in four distinct sections, each of which has it’s own colour scheme and aesthetic. Outdoors is perpetually night-time, the kitchen is green, dining room a deep red and the bathrooms are a stark, brilliant white. Most interestingly however is how the costumes, all designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, change as characters walk from room to room. Mirren’s dress will be green in the kitchen, red at the table and white in the bathroom, as is the same with a silk sash Gambon wears across his chest. I can’t reason why this is done or what it is supposed to symbolise, if anything, but I appreciated the aesthetic choice, as I did with the feeling that this could, with a few minor adjustments, be a play being performed on a stage. It feels like one large set anyway, and in many scenes it has been shot as such with a few cuts to change costumes in doorways, allowing for the scale of the venue to be adequately felt. It left a few questions with regards to logistics – the kitchen seems to be a vast, almost warehouse-like building opening directly onto the car park, and the man smeared in dog mess in the opening scene is later found being hosed off mere unobstructed feet away from the food preparation, but this clearly isn’t a film created for this kind of criticism.
A disgusting reputation (and this being one of the films Chip designated from the 1001 List as being “Bad”) had me not looking forward to this film, and indeed there were some scenes I’d rather not experience again, most notably the manner in which two characters flee a situation, which had me close to throwing up, but in actuality I appreciated this film far greater than I expected. The characters are well portrayed if a little broad and the plot kept me engaged despite knowing some of the climactic aspects. An early scene in which Mirren and Howard engage in their first bathroom tryst but are moments away from being caught is particularly well handled, plus the visuals are often striking, and the supporting cast includes the likes of Tim Roth, Ciarin Hinds, Roger Lloyd Pack and Liz Smith.
Choose Film 7/10