The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

January 28, 2013

cookthethiefPeter Greenaway, the exceedingly provocative English director of The Draughtsman’s Contract and A Zed and Two Naughts, has said of his new film that “I wanted to engage in some of the excitements of unrestricted license.”

Mm-hmm. That is an elegant way of saying that Greenaway has tipped over a number of taboos in his new movie, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. It’s a film that happily seeks to offend and outrage.

And, oh, it succeeds. But Greenaway is such a witty and imaginative filmmaker that he makes his outrageousness watchable. At the very least, this film is visually stunning, even when it is at its most grotesque, which might be any of a number of moments.

The title provides the basic situation. A gangster (Michael Gambon) comes every night to the lavish restaurant he owns. He has no taste whatsoever, for food or anything else, but he likes to parade around with his entourage. His wife (Helen Mirren) is at his side, apparently for the sole purpose of giving him someone to abuse.

Across the restaurant sits a lone diner (Alan Howard), who spots the unhappy wife and sneaks off for the first of a series of trysts with her, in the hidden corners of the restaurant. The head chef (Richard Bohringer) watches all this with a steady, unflappable gaze.

The film is about the wife and her lover’s attempts to come together, while the gangster tries to figure out what is afoot (Gambon, the brilliant British actor who starred in the BBC’s “Singing Detective,” must have 85 percent of the film’s dialogue, and he thunders magnificently).

But the plot does not describe Greenaway’s gallery of effects. His films are not meant to be realistic; they are theatrical, melodramatic. Costume and set design and music are main characters, and they tend to dominate the puny human concerns.

As far as the taboos are concerned, the film pays disgusting detail to torture, scatological excesses, regurgitative functions, and finally cannibalism, in a climactic scene that will probably send people either screaming or chuckling from the theater. Like him or loathe him, Greenaway completely creates his own world, and it’s like nothing else in the movies.

Incidentally, this film grossed out the MPAA ratings board to such an extent that it received an X rating. Unfortunately, the X has come to be associated with hardcore porn (which this film is not, although it contains much nudity), and some newspapers and TV stations won’t accept ads for X-rated films, regardless of content. In Seattle, the movie is being released without a rating. These sorts of problems suggest that it’s time to rethink the current ratings system.

First published in the Herald, April 8, 1990

Caused some excitement at the time, that’s for sure, and Greenaway was really on a roll at that moment. I wonder whether I’d like it as much now.

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2010

June 6, 2012

Every now and then you hear rumors that some bonehead movie producer plans to make a sequel to Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, and you think to yourself, “How on earth could anyone get such a stupid idea?” Well, somebody got the idea to make a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even worse, they actually followed through on this stupid idea.

The result, 2010, is a ridiculous addendum to one of the great visionary works of the cinema. It takes up pretty much where 2001 left off, with stills from the first film to remind us of what happened to the first Jupiter mission, which was examining a large, inexplicable black monolith. (This introduction doesn’t make mention of any huge Star Child floating around.)

2010 has Russian and American astronauts cooperating to find out what went wrong with that mission by traveling to Jupiter and boarding the abandoned spaceship. The recognizable crew members for the new flight are Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, and Bob Balaban (the translator in Close Encounters).

Oh yes, there are a couple of members of the old crew still around. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), who underwent the series of inscrutable episodes at the end of 2001, still exists in some form near that monolith. And HAL 9000, the computer that flipped out so memorably before being dismantled, is resurrected.

The voice of HAL is Douglas Rain, the same actor who gave such unforgettable life to the computer in the 1968 film. Almost the only truly eerie moments in 2010 belong to HAL, because Rain’s voice is in subtly sinister character.

The rest of the film is hooey, with the imminent nuclear war on earth an obvious set-up for the unsurprising, upbeat ending. Writer-director-producer-cinematographer Peter Hyams (he did Capricorn One and Outland) throws in a couple of suspense pieces early on (a dull orbit entry and Lithgow’s shaky spacewalk) to distract us from the main objective, which is finding out what in tarnation that big black thing is.

Hyams gets the look of the film okay, but for all the technical progress of the last few years, it still doesn’t equal 2001. And he certainly can’t equal the earlier film’s stylistic breakthroughs; all he does is overlay his own optimistic view on things.

Stanley Kubrick would probably be disgusted by that. It was Kubrick’s chilly genius behind 2001, of course, and he is nowhere to be seen in this film—except as briefly glimpsed on the cover of Time magazine. Arthur C. Clarke, whose story “The Sentinel” inspired 2001, also wrote the sequel as a novel, and apparently had input on Hyams’ screenplay.

In a way, I’m almost relieved 2010 turned out to be as negligible as it is. Sometimes an ambitious or outrageous sequel can, in weird ways, tarnish the memory of an unimpeachable original. There’s going to be no problem about that with 2010. We can all just forget it.

First published in the Herald, December 7, 1984

Mostly I just remember being annoyed by the effrontery of the movie—the nerve of these people. Along with Rain’s vocal performance hitting the expected moments, there was a shiver conjured up by Keir Dullea’s presence, in part because he looked freakily like the guy from 2001—Dullea hadn’t aged much, and he didn’t have that many subsequent movie reference points to alter the image of Dave Bowman.