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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Cook’: Grossness From Great Talents

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whenever pretentious filmmakers want to defend their excesses on the screen, they invariably cite Shakespeare or--better yet--lurid Jacobean tragedy as a whole. That’s where England’s Peter Greenaway found his alibi for the repulsive “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” (selected theaters).

“Jacobean drama was excited by sheer corporeality,” Greenaway is quoted in the film’s attending publicity. “It took high risks with taboo, melodrama, violence and sexual darkness. I wanted to engage in some of the excitements of unrestricted license.”

Unrestricted license, yes. Excitement, no. Greenaway’s “Cook” is full of gross behavior and jolting images, but its effect is not engaging, and since the film is only occasionally amusing, it is not even cathartic. Miramax, the film’s American distributor, has refused the MPAA’s X rating (the ratings board reportedly said they wouldn’t know where to suggest cutting it), and the film is being released unrated.

The film doesn’t even justify itself on intellectual grounds. It is pointless self-indulgence, more likely to bore sophisticated audiences than shock or titillate them. If Greenaway, the coldly brilliant maker of “The Draughtsman’s Contract,” was exorcising some personal demons in making this film, good riddance to some very bad demons. But audiences should know going in that they’re going to be sharing pain, not pleasure.

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The film is deliberately theatrical, to the extent of opening and closing with a proscenium curtain. The principal setting is an immense, posh, four-star restaurant decorated in lush period formality in dark blood red and dominated by a copy of Frans Hals’ 1614 painting “Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard.” The officers’ uniforms in turn have inspired the outfits of the restaurant’s most regular customers, the Thief (Michael Gambon) and his henchman.

At least Greenaway lets us know what we’re in for as soon as he draws aside the curtain to reveal a couple of trucks filled with garbage flanking the restaurant’s entrance--and attracting a pack of howling dogs. An unfortunate man in debt to the Thief has been stripped and smeared with excrement; as a final touch, the Thief urinates on him before proceeding into the restaurant for an evening of serious gluttony. (Had enough? The last reel introduces cannibalism.)

Sadist, bully and boor, the Thief revels in endless talk about bodily functions at the top of his voice and in physically abusing his companions. Soon, his browbeaten Wife (Helen Mirren, working nude or in her knickers throughout most of the film) becomes attracted to a pleasant-looking man (Alan Howard) dining alone with his stack of books. He becomes her Lover and, between courses, the couple slip off to the restroom or the kitchen, where the Wife shows as grand an appetite for sex as the Thief has for food.

Eventually, the Wife and her Lover are discovered and, with the Thief and his thugs in pursuit, they go into hiding.

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What is the symbolism of all this gluttony, and what does its Grand Guignol consequences tell us about human nature that we do not already know? Greenaway has said that his film can be seen as “a morality tale about greed” and that he has “tried very hard with this film to make the violence solid and serious and adult so that it cannot be avoided” in comparison to the “deodorized and sanitized” violence of most movies.

Yet how puny are Greenaway’s grotesque, patently fake tableaux in comparison to the horrors chronicled in countless Holocaust documentaries. So much balderdash in defense of so much balderdash.

What is disturbing about the film is not what we hear or see but rather that it is so clearly the work of an important and original talent performed masterfully by a first-rate cast and realized by such greatly gifted contributors as cinematographer Sacha Vierny, production designers Ben Van Os and Jan Roelfs, costume designer Jean-Paul Gaultier and composer Michael Nyman (whose weirdly insistent score is a match for Vierny’s ominous images).

Greenaway is a man of distinctive ideas and insights who this time out has expended his abilities and perceptions--and those of many others--on an exercise in grossness that depresses rather than enlarges the human spirit. “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” (Times-rated mature) is sensational, all right, but hardly entertaining.

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