Helen Mirren starred alongside Michael Gambon in the unsettlingly garish The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Excess, obsession and greed combine in violent, spectacular fashion in notorious 1989 film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. The Peter Greenaway-directed movie is an excruciating masterpiece, drenched in blood-red both literally and figuratively, starring Michael Gambon as the titular thief Albert Spica, Helen Mirren his wife Georgina, Alan Howard her bookish lover Michael, and Richard Bohringer the cook, Richard Boarst.
Georgina is a woman with, at first, enviable poise in the face of a vile husband – one who orders her not to smoke, gloats to her as he tortures his enemies, and whose brutishness humiliates and hurts her. But as the plot unravels, so does she: she begins an affair with Michael in the back rooms of Le Hollandais, the restaurant Albert owns and in which much of the film takes place, and as Georgina gains confidence, she challenges her husband.
It’s a move that culminates in an extraordinarily gruesome denouement. Greenaway intended the film to be a satire on the greed and excess that Thatcher’s Britain had cultivated in the 1980s, with Albert the crude and tasteless but powerful character at its centre – his consortium of apparently deranged thieves hanging on his every word.
The sets of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover are lavish, baroque, deliciously detailed and ornate: still life arrangements of fruit, fowl, candles and swathes of rich fabric dominate the restaurant’s dining room, while in the kitchen breads, crockery, seafood, meats and pans pile high on shelves and surfaces in a painterly way (tableaus that eventually rot or are ruined at the hands of Albert).
Equally intricate and entrancing are the film’s costumes, designed by fashion’s enfant terrible, Jean Paul Gaultier. The daring subversion of Gaultier’s aesthetic sits in Greenaway’s unsettling film perfectly; speaking to Brian McFarlane in 1990, the writer and director said: “There is a medieval-like feeling in The Cook, the Thief about this rotten, worm-infested body which is covered in an extraordinary gloss of elaborate clothing, feathered hats and that sort of thing. It is as though there is an attempt to try and hide the horror, the despair, the sense of violence and lust that’s contained only just underneath.”
As Greenaway notes, there are varied and abundant references in the film’s costumes: Victoriana, Japonisme, militia, and futurism all embroiled together. There is a timelessness, then, to its aesthetic, since its clothes defy convention and any one era. Here, five of the garish and gruesome film’s fitting style codes.
1. Dress to match the decor
One of the film’s more surreal stylistic traits occurs as the characters move between scenes. The three main settings are the dining room, the kitchen and the bathrooms of Le Hollandais, and as Georgina and Albert go from one to the other, their costumes change in colour from red, to green, to white – and outside of the restaurant’s walls, they are always wearing black. Georgina’s corset, for example – a Jean Paul Gaultier signature, and a recurring garment throughout the film – on their second evening in the restaurant switches from scarlet, to ivory, to turquoise as she navigates her husband’s revolting table manners and her clandestine love affair.
2. Embrace Victoriana
There is a dandy-like flare to some of Albert and his gang’s early costumes. In the opening scene, he and his associates dress in white shirts with ruffles at the neck, and lace cuffs that get in the way as they force feed excrement to a man that owes Albert money. The dichotomy of the men’s delicate suiting and their horrifying actions is an alarming but fitting introduction to the film’s ongoing interplay between beauty and violence. The corsetry in the film also hints to the Victorian – though Gaultier typically transforms restriction into seduction with his satin and leather renderings.
3. Reconsider the fascinator
If the fascinator has come to err on the naff in recent years, Georgina’s feathered iteration does something to refresh it. Highlighting in her demeanour a combination of ennui and shame, the black feathers seem to shield her from her husband as they frame her face. Feathers are a mainstay in Georgina’s wardrobe; from adorning the aforementioned fascinator to forming a seductive – if startlingly Dracula-like – collar or giving gentle volume to a wispy robe, black plumage is an unchanging sartorial element.
4. Look to Japan
In a moment of black comedy, a woman interrupts Georgina and Michael’s first encounter in the ladies’ room at Le Hollandais. While the lovers wait, stunted, in a cubicle, the striking character treads carefully into the bathroom – her gait is slightly awkward due to her geta-esque wrap-around sandals, which also offer her walk a distinctive clacking sound. The elements of Japonisme do not stop there: long hairpins fasten her bun, she wears a subversively caged white dress and carries a bamboo bag.
5. Make red a base colour
Neutral hues are generally recognised as browns, greys, whites and blacks – red is rarely categorised so. In The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, however, it forms the base of the set design and costume. The walls, furniture, artwork and even cutlery at Le Hollandais are red, and so too the waiting staff’s uniforms. These costumes blend in, but are worth concentrating on for their futuristic, military-esque, surreal silhouettes. Crimson corsets and jackets with soaring lapels and epaulettes – cut from what looks like plastic – are worn by the vast number of waiters and waitresses that almost constantly fill the screen.