Color, 1989, 124m.
Directed by Peter Greenaway
Starring Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Richard Bohringer, Alan Howard, Tim Roth, Liz Smith
Zima (Blu-Ray) (Mexico R0 HD), Anchor Bay (US R1 NTSC), Universal (UK/Italy/Holland R2 PAL), Shock (Australia R4 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD2.0
The newly opened Le Hollandais restaurant is immediately beset by problems. The obnoxious gangster owner, Albert Spica (a pre-Harry Potter Gambon), has his thugs beat up a debtor in the parking lot behind the building while the soft spoken head chef, Richard (Diva's Bohringer), copes inside the kitchen with cluttered signs, power outages, and Albert's offer of questionable spoiled food delivered outside in trucks. Albert's wife, Georgina (The Queen's Mirren), tolerates his verbal and physical abuse by quietly stealing away for a smoke in the bathroom, but that night she catches the eye of one bookish customer, Michael (Howard). The two begin an illicit affair which continues each night, forcing them to copulate in the restroom and among the stored food. When their infidelity is inevitably discovered, the four characters experience a violent, vengeful chain of events of Jacobean proportions.
The finest film by Peter Greenaway and one of the most significant, devastating works of English-speaking cinematic art released in the '90s, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover still hasn't received its full due. The firestorm which surrounded its release (and which in tandem with Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! ultimately led to the creation of the NC-17 rating) made the title a catchphrase for daring adult entertainment, which this certainly is, but the film also marks a tremendous step forward for Greenaway as an artist. The film marks a fluid bridge between the quirky, small scale exercises in human foibles like Drowning by Numbers and the more lavish, unabashed studies in excess like Prospero's Books and The Baby of Macon (which unbelievably remains unreleased in the U.S.). Great things couldn't last forever, but he certainly enjoyed a decade-long run unlike any other in film history.
Most obviously, The Cook is one of those rare films in which everyone involved is at the absolute top of their game. The actors have a ball with their meaty roles, though obviously Gambon and Mirren get the juiciest moments. Greenaway's regular cinematographer at the time, the late Sacha Vierney (Last Year at Marienbad), conjures up some jaw-dropping camerawork which carries the viewer on gliding wings through each massive room of the restaurant, where the characters' Jean Paul Gauthier clothes change through each doorway to match the decor. Michael Nyman, Greenaway's frequent composer to that point, also provides one of his finest scores, highlighted by the unforgettable twelve minute "Memorium" which plays out at different intervals over the one week period (visually designated by different dinner menus for each calendar day). Many critics at the time were tempted to read the film as a savage critique of Thatcher's callous financial policies in England for the past decade, but the film's impact goes well beyond such a specific social reading; one could easily apply this scenario to any oppressive political climate even during the present day. Incidentally, fans of British comedies should keep their eyes peeled for two very prominent future cast members of the hilarious Vicar of Dibley among the regular diners.
The Cook epitomizes the kind of edgy fare Miramax used to corner the art film market before their regrettable consumption by Disney. Though unrated in theaters, it was eventually branded with an NC-17 by the time of its video release thanks to a licensing deal with Trimark. The VHS editions ranged from an uncut letterboxed version (also released on laserdisc, albeit vertically squashed) to a laughable R-rated cut, which excised half an hour of footage. During its segue from diverse provider of wide entertainment options to lapdog for the religious right, Blockbuster originally stocked the NC-17 version before yanking it and having the tapes destroyed, with the R-rated alternative eventually becoming the most widely known edition. That's a shame, though oddly enough, the bowdlerized cut is in many ways more perverse because of what it implies rather than shows. For example, the stunning final scene doesn't actually show what one character eats, leaving the viewer with an impression more foul than what was originally filmed.
Though the spacious scope visuals of The Cook are essential to appreciating the film on any level at all, Anchor Bay's DVD was the first really decent option out there. The anamorphic transfer corrects the aspect ratio which was squeezed horizontally on the laserdisc, smushing out everyone's heads in the process, and the colors and black levels are drastically improved. The hellish reds of the dining room interior have now been properly restored, so forget the laser's comparatively murky, dull shades of brown and beige. Simply put, toss those laserdiscs out and get this instead; the upgrade is most definitely worth it. The surround audio on the laserdisc was always very strong, and the DVD sounds identical, with Nyman's piano and string heavy music giving the rear speakers a very hefty workout. The disc includes two international trailers (with studio credits conspicuously absent). One runs a little over three minutes and features some very effective manipulation of voiceovers and dissolves, while the second trailer trims down the same basic idea to about a minute and a half. The same transfer was subsequently issued in several other countries, while the Anchor Bay disc went out of print fairly quickly and now commands absurd amounts of money.
Rumors have circulated for some time that Criterion was planning a special edition of the film but couldn't locate pristine source elements, which is tragic if true. One would hope that somewhere a good source is lying around in the Miramax vaults changing hands left and right, but we'll just have to wait and see. In any case, Greenaway has been far more respectfully treated on Blu-Ray outside of America with A Zed and Two Noughts, The Pillow Book, and The Baby of Macon all getting the HD treatment in Europe. However, the real shocker here is The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover debuting on Blu-Ray from none other than Mexico from Zima, with an MGM logo on the book offering some clue about the original source. It is indeed a new 1080p transfer, and it should go without saying that this is substantially better than anything standard def could offer. Colors are vibrant, detail is significantly increased (you can now read even the tiniest words on the menu interstitials used as act markings), and it's completely uncut. The color schemes are very close to the Anchor Bay version though with more intensity in the reds during the larger mobile tableaux shots, and the framing is nearly identical with just a tiny sliver of additional information on all four sides of the Blu-Ray; it's so minor though you'd have to stare to really notice. The good news and bad news is that there hasn't been any sort of digital manipulation or clean-up done here; the darker scenes have some inherent softness at times (especially the intentionally murky and oppressive opening credits) and this film never exactly dazzlingly crisp, but the grain levels look about the same as it did theatrically. On the other hand, there's a significant amount of debris visible (as there was on the DVD version, but it was much softer so you could barely tell); the first two reels in particular have a large number of black flecks at times that will drive some digital purists crazy. It's not a huge problem except in the first scene in the ladies' bathroom, where the austere white color schemes show off every little flaw in glaring detail. Luckily the debris dissipates to almost nothing after the first reel and a half or so at least. This is still by far the best viewing option for the film in any format to date, obviously, but people watching their budgets may also want to hope and pray that a worthy American or British edition comes along someday from a company that really does want to mount a full scale restoration.
Want a comparison? Click here for a shot from the Anchor Bay disc and here for the same shot from the Blu-Ray.