For a Jacobean-style drama about deadly emotions, the film lacks passion; only in the final half-hour, with Michael Nyman's funereal music supplying a welcome gravity, does it at last exert a stately power.
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Mr. Greenaway turns this tale of a bullying criminal and his unfaithful wife into something profound and extremely rare: a work so intelligent and powerful that it evokes our best emotions and least civil impulses, so esthetically brilliant that it expands the boundaries of film itself.
If there's anything disgusting or grotesque that The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover doesn't dabble in, I'm at a loss to figure out what it is. This film, a wildly exuberant, bitingly satirical examination of excess, bad taste, and great acting, is the kind of over-the-top experience that will have timid movie-goers running (not just walking) for the exits. Taboos? If director Peter Greenaway has any, you can't tell by this film.
While his film certainly has the nastiness of satire, it doesn't have much political focus; petty malice rather than anger is the main bill of fare, with deep-dish notations about food and sex thrown in for spice.
Despite the lofty tone of his literary, artistic and metaphysical allusions, Greenaway is working the same streets of human depravity as John Waters; he's just more pretentious about it. At best, Greenaway's film is a provocative and diabolically funny foray into the roots of passion and cruelty. At worst, the symbolic bric-a-brac gets so thick you lose sight of the characters.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is not an easy film to sit through. It doesn't simply make a show of being uncompromising -- it is uncompromised in every single shot from beginning to end. Why is it so extreme? Because it is a film made in rage, and rage cannot be modulated.
Here’s a film that opens with a man being smeared in excrement and closes with an even more horrifying act of revenge, yet it’s fevered, passionate, and occasionally erotic, at least by Greenaway standards. It’s a film awash in the color red, full of blood, sex, and rage, the rare Greenaway that feels alive as more than a formal or semiotic exercise. You may even catch him storytelling here and there.