I would not suggest this as a date movie. Eating is also a problem, even if you
have no date. You probably don't want to eat beforehand, and you won't be able
to eat afterward.
The basic story: a rich mobster holds a rude court each night in a restaurant,
where he and his hangers-on abuse each other, the staff, and anyone else who
crosses their paths, while indulging in various types of excessive behavior. You
must understand that their idea of abuse goes far beyond anything you can
conceive until you see the movie. The thief says anything and does anything he
wants to. For example, the thief also owns the restaurant, and when he is
unhappy with his staff, he has a cook stripped naked so he can piss on him and
smear him with dog shit.
The thief's long-suffering wife spots a chance for an escape from her life of
martyrdom. She spies a bookish intellectual who reads while he eats in an
adjoining table. Not long after their eyes meet, they are wildly rutting in the
ladies room, wordlessly. Their silence continues until they are introduced
formally, after which they are allowed to talk to each other as part of the
social ritual of the group, and they fall in love right under the thief's nose,
forming their amalgamation each night in a different part of the restaurant.
Mr Thief does find out eventually, and he is just not happy at all, and I think
you have already deduced that he is not a nice man. The lovers manage to escape
his pursuit only through the help of the chef. The resolution of the story, the
dramatic tension, comes from our involvement in the continuation of the pursuit.
Will the thief catch them? What will he do if he does? How will the wife react?
The movie is an extraordinarily artistic success in many ways, especially the
superb acting and the arresting visuals. If you are familiar with Greenaway's
work, like "A Zed and Two Noughts," "The Pillow Book," "Drowning by Numbers" and
others, you realize that he has a unique artistic vision. One can't help but
admire his sense of composition, his obsession with symmetry, his ability to
bring the principles of painting into film, his experimentation with lighting.
In this particular movie, he lends a dominant color treatment to each room, and
he actually changes the clothing of the characters when they walk from one room
to another, allowing their costuming to reflect the mood lighting for the
appropriate room. The set design, typical of Greenaway, is both cluttered
and surreal. The kitchen is a vision out of Dante or Bosch. It's impossible to
absorb all the details in one viewing, but it is possible to drink in the
effects if you just allow the film to deliver its message to you.
This movie produced some savage negatives in both Peter Greenaway's native
England and in America, but for different reasons. In England, people
interpreted the film as propaganda - as an anti-Thatcherite political allegory.
The left in England viewed the Thatcher years as many of their American
counterparts viewed the parallel Reagan years, as a time of wicked excess when
the greed of the rich was indulged by a government willing to side with them at
the expense of the working class. The Thief is essentially the Thatcherite
plutocrats, pissing on the poor. The wife is England, her ideals betrayed,
seduced by one side, then the other, ultimately corrupted. The lover is the
ineffectual intellectual class, unable to save England or her workers, despite
the best of intentions. The cook is the abused workers. Well, that's the way a
lot of English saw it, anyway. They have a point. I guess the film does require
an allegorical interpretation, because it doesn't really work on a literal
level, For example, why would customers keep coming back to a restaurant where
they are terrorized as if they were walking through a subway station in a
Over the big pond, the film stirred up controversy unrelated to its politics.
Greenaway is a genuine aesthetic master, but he achieves his vision through
means fair and foul. He is not one who believes that art is nothing more than
beauty, and the recipe for his films is peppered with nausea, black humor,
shock, sex, nudity, and did I mention shock? In addition to what I've already
described, this one is filled with the portrayal of graphic sexual appetite,
plenty of gross-outs from decaying flesh surrounded by buzzing flies, rotting
fish covered with maggots, and even cannibalism. This film is nauseating. And I
mean that in the most literal sense, as opposed to, for example, when I say Air
Supply is nauseating. Although I've always thought Air Supply should supply Air
Bags, or whatever they call those little bags they give you on the plane.
I have written about Peter Greenaway on many occasions. Of all the filmmakers in
the world, he is the best, and the worst. I like him best, and I like him least.
He is the most brilliant, and the most difficult. He can be like your brilliant
son who wants to use his genius to support causes you despise, and who is so
much smarter than you that you can't offer any arguments against him. He is not
a commercial filmmaker, but an artist. But at what point in an artist's pursuit
of his personal vision does he just become self-indulgent? Who knows? The answer
depends partially on the artist, but less on the artist than on the audience.
Sometimes I think Greenaway is dazzling and that no filmmaker in the world can
approach him. Five minutes later, I might think he's lost his own way in his
surreal world, and he's just dithering. He's a great artist, but genuine
greatness involves great risk. One doesn't get recognized as great by following
a safe path already taken and approved by others. And risks don't always produce
positive results. That's why they're called risks. Greenaway hangs himself out
there and pushes you to the limits of your mind and sometimes your stomach, and
he really doesn't care whether you like him or not, or whether he sells any
tickets. He follows his vision uncompromisingly, and his recipe is never bland.
But I think you have to concede this: given the long history of cinema, most of
what we see today is a rehash of what has come before. There is very little real
originality in the world of film, but Greenaway is an exception. Whether you
like him or hate him or both, he is a dyed-in-the-wool original.