Greed, Excess And Vulgarity -- Greenaway's Film Plumbs The Depths Of Overindulgence

XXXX ``The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,'' with Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Richard Bohring, Alan Howard, Tim Roth. Written and directed by Peter Greenaway. Varsity. No rating; includes violence, nudity, rough language.


Peter Greenaway's audacious new nightmare movie, ``The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,'' accomplishes what the X-rated ``Caligula'' and Brian de Palma's ``Scarface'' failed to do.

It's an unblinking portrait of a human monster who doesn't know the meaning of wretched excess. He tortures, taunts, kills and indulges in consumption for its own sake. His obscenity and barbarism know no limits, yet he has delusions of being an artist, and he seems genuinely devastated when his much-abused wife is less than faithful to him.

Unlike ``Caligula,'' which lost itself in flaccid writing and gratuitous hard-core porn sequences, and ``Scarface,'' which shared the central character's inability to recognize when enough was enough, Greenaway's movie doesn't succumb to excess itself.

Greenaway keeps his wits about him. His vision of human evil is as droll as it is unrelenting. Trained as a painter, he can't help making this particular hell look gorgeous. ``The Cook, the Thief, etc.'' is, paradoxically, a beautiful, drily witty film about monstrous vulgarity and ugliness.

The thief of the title is a gangster named Albert Spica, who

holds court every night at a vast restaurant called La Hollandaise, where his sleazy yes-men surround him and his wife gets slapped for correcting him when he can't pronounce the menu items properly.

When she gets bored, she notices a lone bookworm at another table. They make eye contact and, without introduction, head for the women's restroom, where they make love in one of the stalls. With the help of the cook, they continue their affair night after night, sneaking away to the kitchen and - after the thick-headed Albert figures out what his wife's been doing during her absences from the table - to a book depository where the lover is sure they won't be found.

``Are we safe here?'' she asks. ``Does Albert read?'' he replies.

Although there are moments that suggest Edward G. Robinson's 1930s gangsters, Laurence Olivier's slyly merciless Richard III and even Peter Ustinov's deluded Nero in ``Quo Vadis,'' I can't think of many precedents for Michael Gambon's remarkable performance as the evil Albert.

He's a true monster from the id, a rampaging bull in a china shop who can't stop himself from wreaking disaster and, inevitably, turning his victims against him. The restaurant becomes his Roman palace, where he reigns as mad emperor, freely tormenting the customers and using the silverware as weaponry, while an oblivious singer entertains the guests

and patrons with a ghastly pop tune, ``We're Only Here for Love.''

As the frustrated wife, Helen Mirren is a beautiful enigma, a woman who behaves like a proper lady with her wretched husband, then freely loses her inhibitions with the gentlemanly lover (wryly played by Alan Howard). They wander nude through the kitchen, making love among the produce, seen and all but applauded by the staff.

When she returns to her husband's table in a disheveled state, attempting to maintain the illusion of decorum, she seems to have finally lost all of her marbles. But she's just begun to go over the edge, as she proves when she makes a barbaric suggestion to the cook (Richard Bohringer), who agrees to her proposition only when he understands her vengeful purpose.

Although the movie is presumably set in the present, Greenaway brings a timeless, abstract quality to the material, filling in the margins with references to Renaissance paintings, Fellini's visions of ancient and modern Rome, and the politics of the French revolution.

Watching from behind Albert and his crude underlings are the dignified eyes in a massive reproduction of Franz Hals's 17th century painting, ``Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard Company.'' When the naked lovers are thrown into a butcher's van filled with decaying fish, the image suggests Adam and Eve's banishment from Eden. The movie begins with a wide-screen close-up of the hounds of hell.

Cinematographer Sacha Vierny's gliding, stately camera movements and Michael Nyman's mesmerizing music maintain this sense of other-worldliness, which also helps to keep Albert's violence from becoming overwhelming.

``The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover'' was rated X last month by the Motion Picture Association of America, which refused to consider an appeal. The American distributor, Miramax, has decided to ignore the X and release the film without a rating.

The MPAA was correct to place it in the one category that forbids children from attending. It's just unfortunate that that category has become synonymous with such sleaze as ``Caligula.'' This is a shocking, confrontational film that is intended to disturb. It is also an adult film in the best sense. By no stretch of the imagination is it pornography.