Le Hollandaise is the fictional restaurant setting for Peter Greenaway’s controversial 1989 film “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”. It was my first exposure to the work of Peter Greenaway and I fell in love. “Cook” is also Greenaway’s most well known, most controversial and, therefore, financially successful film. After watching the film, watching many people walk out, I sought out Greenaway’s earlier works and have been a faithful follower of his new films.
The Cook (Richard Bohringer) is the owner of Le Hollandaise, a grand, snooty restaurant serving the elite of London’s upper class. He has a reputation for creating the most wonderful dishes. The Thief (Michael Gambon) makes himself a partner of the restaurant, forcing his favors upon the Cook and holding court in the restaurant every evening. His boorish manners and atrocious attitude towards everyone begins to have an effect on The Wife (Helen Mirren). Georgina can’t stand her abusive, stupid, loud husband. One evening, she spots The Lover (Alan Howard) sitting alone at another table, his face buried in a book. He looks up. Soon, he follows her into the ladies room and they begin their affair under the nose of her husband. Each night, they become closer but also come closer to getting caught. The Cook soon aids in their liaisons.
In any Greenaway film, the most important aspect of the film is the design. This is closely followed by some sort of system and the story and subject matter closely follow that.
Greenaway is a rare filmmaker. Like Spielberg, Scorcese and Soderbergh, he is obviously very passionate about his films, a passion evident in the skill and craftsmanship involved in making his films. Greenaway started out as a painter and this is an important thing to know. It informs his work considerably, much like we are aware of Scorcese’s Italian heritage when watching a classic like “Goodfellas” or “Raging Bull”, or Spielberg’s early attempts at making science fiction films when we watch a classic like “E.T.” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. When you learn that Greenaway is a painter, his film compositions become all the more interesting and complex. Each frame is meticulously composed; every detail worked out to the smallest piece of fabric. You will not see a film that looks like “Cook” again in your life. Greenaway has worked with the same cinematographer on a number of films. He and Sacha Vierny have created a rich body of work that is a sumptious treat for the eyes. Each of the frames of “Cook” seem to pay tribute to Dutch painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt. Our viewpoint is usually from a distance, creating the impression we are looking at a living painting. The film takes place in the large rooms of the restaurant, with a couple of brief, very memorable trips outside and to one other location, each of the rooms lit as they might be for a painting from the 16th Century. The architectural design and cinematography of “Cook” stands as a testament to film design.
Each room not only has its own look, but its own feel as well, complemented by the design of the interior. The kitchen is functional, busy, and perhaps not completely clean. The dining room is grand, pretentious and obviously very expensive. The bathrooms are functional yet large as well. Each room of the restaurant is bathed in a particular color. The main dining room is filled with luxurious red velvet and red draperies and table clothes. The bathrooms are bright white. The kitchen is bathed in green. The predominant color of each room not only dazzles the viewer visually, but also serves to help create different feelings for the scenes. Georgina and Michael carry on their affair in each room of the restaurant and each of their trysts is different due to the functionality of the room.
The Good Bits
In preparation for this opinion, I watched the film again, to refresh it in my mind. I remembered that each of the character's costumes changed each night they visited the restaurant. Georgina wears a number of outfits that are always predominately black, but they always features a scarf or swath of fabric over the shoulder. Albert, the thief, usually wears a cumberband or sash. As they move from one room to the next, these accessories change color as well, reflecting the hue of the environment. I remembered that this particularly struck me. It seemed very dramatic, almost operatic. Watching it again, I realized that not every character is affected in this way. As the main characters move from one room to the next, the camera passes behind a wall, much like a live television broadcast from the 50s, before entering the next room. The camera passing behind the wall hides the editing involved and the characters enter the new room in the same clothes, but with different color accents. The costumes, designed by Jean Paul Gaultier are as interesting as the design of the rooms. Georgina’s clothes become increasingly S & M inspired. Albert’s clothes become noticeably gaudier. These elements add so much to the feeling and mood of the film.
Every Greenaway film I have seen has some sort of system at the basis of it. “The Pillow Book” was fascinated with Japanese calligraphy and this becomes a significant part of the story and design as the main character begins to write on her lover’s body. “Drowning By Numbers” hides an ascending series of numbers in the visual composition as three generations of women in the same family all deal with philandering husbands. “The Belly Of An Architect” tells the story of an American architect building a structure in Rome that is much more complicated than he can handle. The film presents increasingly elaborate architectural designs between each scene. Greenaway’s first feature “The Draughtsman’s Contract” follows the adventures of an 18th Century draughtsman as he completes a commission to draw the estate of a wealthy woman. The progression of the drawings and the clues within provide a loose framework for the story. The systematic element of the story is one of the things that I always look forward to. The puzzle always adds something extra to watch and look for.
In “Cook”, the characters go to the restaurant every night for a week. During each visit, the thief becomes more obnoxious, deplorable and despicable. Georgina becomes more desperate for love. The cook becomes more anxious to get rid of his unwanted partner. Each segment is introduced by a menu announcing the Specialities Du Jour, surrounded by the food specials of the evening. The menu is very elegant, pretentious and fitting for such a restaurant. The food surrounding the menu has a connection to one of the elements in the story. On, no, I will not, can not reveal that.
Greenaway’s films address the issue of class. Characters are entrenched in the middle class, desperate to achieve riches, a place in society, comfort. Their actions prompt the main action within the story. In “Cook”, the obnoxious, boorish thief is desperate to look presentable and become a member of the upper class. How does he do this? He forces his way into the restaurant and continues his underworld dealings to give him the means for a fancy lifestyle. Greenaway uses the thief as a model for most people in the upper class. He tells us that anyone in this class is really a derivation of Albert, a derivation of a thief.
The Naughty Bits
Greenaway’s films enjoy a loyal following in the United States. His films have never achieved what anyone would call financial success; one recent film was not even released in the United States. Part of the reason for this is the subject matter of his films, and the reason I have chosen this film for my write-off. Every one of his films deals with people that are not in love, but need love and therefore take it. In “Cook”, Albert does not love Georgina and she certainly doesn’t love him, but she feels trapped and doesn’t know where to go or what to do. When she finally finds love, Albert soon learns of it and puts a stop to it. Robbed of her last chance for true love, she takes revenge, releasing her nightmares. “Pillow Book”, “The Draughtsman’s Contract”, “8 ½ Women” all have main characters that are similar. They all have needs, needs that must be, will be fulfilled, no matter what the cost. If these characters were able to love and be loved the films and stories wouldn’t exist. It is their perversions that make the films real, watchable and interesting. When Greenaway makes a film that works successfully with these notions, they become memorable. When he is off his game, they don’t work; we don’t feel sympathy for the characters. “Cook” works because we can feel sympathy for Georgina and Michael. We can even feel sympathy for Albert. He is such an atrocious human being that we can imagine the horrible childhood that created him.
In one review I read about “Cook”, the writer noted that they felt Greenaway let Albert off the hook too easily. Without revealing a lot of the climax, I don’t agree. I felt that he let Georgina escape from her personal hell in a quick, expedient way.
More Naughty Bits
“Cook” was controversial because it has a lot of elements that are uncommon in American films. Two very natural looking humans appear nude often, before and during their romantic encounters. Helen Mirren has a voluptuous body type, another element that draws parallels to Dutch paintings and Alan Howard is also not a svelte male super model. Their encounters are truly erotic, interesting and much more arousing than most ‘love scenes’ in American films. This alone would send shock waves through just about every religious watchdog group. Greenaway also includes some fairly graphic violence, prompting a lot of controversy and much of the revenue the film generated. I find it ironic that the MPAA will give a film about a serial killer who engages in explicit sexual intercourse before killing his victims as the camera agonizes over the death ‘R’ ratings, but if the film depicts intercourse between two loving people and happens to include some violence, it can’t receive a rating. In 1989, “Cook” was released as Unrated. When it finally hit video stores, two versions were available, the Unrated letterboxed version and a chopped up ‘R’ rated version. Blockbuster would only carry the ‘R’ rated version, which is about 30 minutes shorter than the Unrated version. Did these people see the same film? No.
The violence in “Cook” is fairly graphic. There are also some elements of a very unconventional nature in the climax that might be unsettling for some people. These elements only serve to strengthen the overall story, shocking the viewer, making us realize how far this affair has gone on.
And As You Leave The Theater
“Cook” is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen. If video is your preferred method, please, please, please search out a copy of the uncut letterboxed version. With almost 30 minutes cut out, there is no way the ‘R’ rated version can approximate the experience. The tape is out of print, so a newer video store may not have it. “Cook” is also a film more than worthy of a deluxe DVD edition, yet still hasn’t been released on DVD.
“The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” is one of the most visually spectacular films I have ever seen. After watching it the first time, I imagined a play, a painting and an opera all combined into one film. It was, and remains, a shocking experience that I will remember for a long time.