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Peter Greenaway at his darkest, blackest best with latest film

THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, AND HER LOVER

Written and directed by Peter Greenaway.

Starring Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren,

Richard Bohringer, and Alan Howard.

Now playing at the Nickelodeon Theater.

By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR

Q[mc]UITE SIMPLY, Peter Greenaway's newest film is such an unparalleled masterpiece that it is likely to completely redefine viewers' notions of what "shocking," "savage," and "disturbing" mean. Greenaway has honed his filmmaking and satirical prowess to such a sharp edge that commonly-held assumptions about society, film, and the norms of civilized behavior are mercilessly and continuously assaulted from the opening frame to the closing line. His film can be interpreted as a combination of hard-hitting political and social satire, a feminist revenge tract in the tradition of Jacobean theater, and some downright weird filmmaking. All three elements are superbly rolled into a tightly constructed film that is, surprisingly, as entertaining as it is disturbing.

The title of the film is most appropriate, since it not only introduces the main characters but also suggests the themes that make up the film's narrative. The Cook (Richard Bohringer) owns a restaurant and is a perfectionist, always experimenting with new dishes and looking for a challenge. His most dangerous customer is the vile and abusive Thief (Michael Gambon), a local racketeer and extortionist who dines at the restaurant with his gang each night in an attempt to gain social respectability.

The Thief's long-suffering companion is his Wife (Helen Mirren), who bears the brunt of his verbal and physical violence. In the restaurant, one day her gaze falls on a quiet man dressed in a modest and subdued brown-colored suit. He becomes her Lover (Alan Howard), and their affair continues as furtively as possible. The Lover and the Wife are able to conceal themselves from the Thief with help from the Cook, who sympathizes with them. The film follows 10 days in the life of these characters, who act out a melodrama on film as though they were on a stage.

Greenaway's versatility in combining stage and film techniques is one of his most fascinating artistic contributions to the film. However, he draws on other disciplines as well to create a world of his own where the characters and their conflicts unfold in a highly stylized and uniquely cinematic arena. This world consists of a huge restaurant composed of four rooms or sections, each of which is color-coded and varies in appearance from slightly surreal to the downright unreal.

The first section is an elongated kitchen, shown in a deep jungle-green. The second room is the main dining room, which is blood-red all over. This is where the Thief holds his daily court and (not too surprisingly) where most of the film's abuse takes place. Deepest inside the restaurant are the softly-lit incandescent white lavatories -- spotless and shadowless -- which serve as a haven from the bullying Cook, and where the Wife and Lover begin their affair. Finally, positioned just outside the mouth of the kitchen is the parking lot where street dogs run amok and garbage from the restaurant accumulates and rots. This section is filmed in a cold, ultramarine blue that emphasizes its horror and filth.

The reason for Greenaway's placement of his film in a restaurant lies in his interpretation of its social function. According to Greenaway, "A restaurant is a microcosm of our modern consumerist society. People like the Thief and the Wife go to restaurants to see and be seen as much as to eat." The restaurant is an artificial world that stands apart from the real world and yet mirrors it at the same time. It draws a picture of the raging excesses of a consumer society that consumes itself when nothing else is left to consume. That one theme is perhaps the most basic point of the film.

However, interwoven among all of this satire and stylized savagery are some scenes of tremendous emotional resonance that introduce the film's second theme. This is done via the character of the Wife, who is by far the most sympathetic person in the film. The agony she's suffered in the course of her relationship with the Thief comes pouring out during one intense scene where she sadly looks back at her past history with the Thief, remembering that she even tried to leave him several times. Each time, the Thief cried and pleaded with her to come back, but when she did the same abuse would start up.

Helen Mirren's acting during this scene is flawlessly played with just the right touch of emotion and honesty. Greenaway's sympathetic treatment of the Wife causes the film to work as an engaging feminist tract on domestic violence, but it is the subtlety and nuance of that treatment that puts small-minded television films to shame.

But Greenaway does not rest there in portraying the Wife. She is an active character, not just a passive, sympathetic victim. So in the end it is the Wife who takes action to put an end to the all the torment and suffering, providing the crucial link between the two dominant themes of the film. Thus, Greenaway is able to integrate the twin dynamics of his film together in a most logical and compelling fashion. Otherwise, the two themes might have worked at cross purposes and canceled each other out.

It is reassuring to know that Greenaway is not resting on his laurels after the success of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Two weeks after he had finished the film he was already at work on this next film project. That is the kind of commitment to art which is at the heart of Greenaway's success, and that is why one can predict with confidence that he has much to offer in the years ahead. And so it will be with bated breath that filmgoers will await the release of his next film to see what new heights he has chosen to climb.