Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) is not a very nice man, in fact he's a gangster who has bullied his way through life and is now one of the most powerful of his kind in London. Tonight he's showing his displeasure to one restaurant owner who is heavily in debt to him until he swiftly gained the upper hand, and after shoving dogshit down his throat and stripping him naked to smear him with more of the stuff, Albert stalks into his new restaurant, The Hollandaise, where the head chef Richard Borst (Richard Bohringer) prepares him his finest meals as Albert's wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) bites her tongue...
With The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover writer and director Peter Greenaway conjured what many saw as not only his most extreme film to that date, but also his most accomplished. Many of these people would not have been caught dead watching a slasher movie or splattery gore flick, yet because Greenaway had the kudos of being artistic in his corner, he managed to get away with some of the tawdriest imagery outside of a Lucio Fulci horror movie here. Some actual fans of horror movies might have been aggrieved if they stopped to think about the mixed messages the esteem works such as Greenaway's were held in by the cognoscenti.
Although equally they may have appreciated the sense of catharsis on offer in this effort, as if watching something which mixed the relentlessly highbrow with the just as relentlessly revolting was a way of getting something out of your system, and if nothing else Greenaway designed his visuals to within an inch of their lives. That may have been all very well, but with rumours of the actual theme of the movie being a railing against Thatcherism, you could perceive something a lot more objectionable than Albert's scatalogical, sexually obscene pantomime villainy and that was a distinct snobbery. It was as if the film was not resisting the profligacy this new money was encouraging, but a lower class of person it was raising to the level of the upper classes.
Yet not in the tastes of the upper classes, just in what they spent their money on: it was the aspirational Greenaway had his sights set on, the nouveau riche who with horrified exaggeration could never appreciate the finest of art, food and wine the way an aesthete like your typical Greenaway fan could. Therefore the horror was more one of witnessing the proverbial bull in the china shop, these coarse, uncouth but freshly moneyed boors riding roughshod through areas of rarified and exquisite culture, though at the same time getting a barely admitted thrill out of revelling in their horrendousness at the arm's length watching a movie could supply. Albert is so over the top, so sustained in his evil thanks to Gambon's pitch of his performance, that he could have slotted right into the most repellent of shockers without a problem.
As for the other characters in the title, they had to put up with his behaviour until they just could stand no more, I tell you, and forced him into his comeuppance. The Wife notices one of the other diners (respected stage actor Alan Howard) across the restaurant who has caught her eye by doing something absolutely bizarre in Spica's presence: he is reading a book. Thus captivated, they begin to make excuses to visit the bathroom together, and embark on an affair which offers her a release from her hellish life with her husband, but we can tell is doomed from the start as it's only a matter of time before Albert finds out. When he does, it's time for Greenaway to amp up the ultraviolence, which may make for compelling cinema almost in spite of itself, but exhibited a selection of cheap tactics in pillorying the type of person Greenaway deigned beneath him, and invited the audience to languish in his artificial and high falutin' observations through his bloody and transgressive methods. Michael Nyman's music is equally unyielding.