When Revenge Becomes Justice in This Cult Classic Food Film

November  9, 2016

This weekend, the Metrograph theater in New York City’s Lower East Side will be screening "Food-on-Film: A Weekend with Alton Brown," featuring six of Food52 friend Alton Brown’s favorite food films. They’re all classics, and readily available. We’ll be running short essays throughout the week on each one. Check out the previous entries here.

Photo by Miramax Films/Photofest and Metrograph

British director Peter Greenaway made 1989's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover deep in the throes of Thatcher-era conservatism. It's a film that, in its time, barely dodged an X rating—one wherein humans double as caloric intake. (To be as circumspect as possible, the film's denouement involves cannibalistic revenge.) The film has amassed something of a cult following since the rapture it invited in arthouse circles, with most of its ardent fans today, including Alton Brown, praising it for the care and texture of its compositions; the raucousness of Michael Gambon in the film's principal role, before he played Dumbledore; and the way Greenaway macabrely weaves such normative social practices as scatology into a narrative of dark humor. Divorcing the film from its political subtext, though, Brown suggests that chief among this allegory's sundry attractions is “the smokin’ hot Helen Mirren in Jean-Paul Gaultier.”

His is not exactly an unpopular opinion. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover has burrowed its way into pockets of popular memory, in part, due to its many snapshots of Mirren slinking in tight-fitting corsets, if she's wearing any clothing at all. Mirren is one of the few women throughout history whom men have not excoriated for aging, and this film puts her body on display as tastefully as a male director could. But it, too, bears remembering that this film gave Mirren one of the first substantive film roles she, well into her 40s, received in a decade that didn't give her very many (the two that spring to mind are 1980's The Long Good Friday and 1984's Cal, neither of which is exactly a household name in the vein of some of her later work).

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As Georgina, Mirren plays a character whose plight—and, later, fury—animates the most gruesome proceedings in Greenaway’s film. When we first meet Georgina, she is the quietly aggrieved wife to Michael Gambon’s gangster-turned-restaurant owner, Albert Spica. As the person closest to him, Georgina is the frequent recipient of Albert's abuse that years of marriage have normalized. He slaps her rather casually to audiences of his fellow friends. When Albert takes over Le Hollandaise, a respected French restaurant, he almost single-handedly compromises its reputation with his brutish clientele ("I think those Ethiopians enjoy starving," Albert quips in one scene. "Keeps them thin and graceful.").

Georgina longs to escape her husband. She begins an affair with one of the restaurant's regulars, a bookkeeper named Michael (Alan Howard), who first stumbles upon Georgina preening in the mirror of the ladies' room. It's a chamber of a room, tranquil and white, the only threat of the outside world looming in through faint pulse of red lights; the bathroom is Georgina's sanctuary from her husband's fascistic grip.

It's this scene of wordless, coy gestures that sets the foundation for what follows. At first, Georgina appears terribly shy when Michael comes inside and sees her. She appears obstinate about repressing her more primal desires before she grows fidgety and impatient, exiting the bathroom and meeting him outside, offering Michael a cigarette before submitting to her attraction.

Helen Mirren in 'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover'. Photo by Metrograph

The remainder of the film sees Georgina and Michael carry on an affair that is less torrid than it is freeing. Greenaway offers Albert as an example of disastrous vanity of Thatcher-era values—he fancies himself as a morally sacrosanct tough guy, yet he's remarkably fragile upon learning of his wife's deviance. He disposes of Michael accordingly, and Georgina will spend the rest of the film exacting justice for what her husband has taken away from her, morphing into a pistol-wielding wife who forcibly feeds the corpse of her lover to her husband. Strip away the film's graphic costuming of sex and violence and one realizes that it is, at its basic core, predicated on this woman's slow burn of a transmogrification from a demure, disaffected wife to a woman who exacts justice on her own terms. Greenaway frames most of the scenes in this film as long shots with theatrical self-consciousness, soaking most frames in red; the restaurant is a suffocating hellscape that dwarfs human desire and feeling. For Georgina, the safest place is outside it—until her husband denies her that freedom, too, giving her no choice but to act.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.

1 Comment

M November 11, 2016
Stellar film.