Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is one of those ”landmark” films — like I Am Curious (Yellow) or In the Realm of the Senses — that lots of people talk about but few have actually seen. A savage political parable about greed, class warfare, and cannibalism at a posh restaurant in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, Greenaway’s movie achieved notoriety for its supposedly envelope-pushing sex and violence scenes rather than for its quite serious artistic ambitions. And despite the reams of free publicity generated by its director’s (and distributor’s) refusal to recut the film to avoid an X rating (it was released unrated), those artistic ambitions still proved a mass audience turn-off.
Which brings us to home video, an arena where ”difficult” films like The Cook traditionally get a second chance. In this case, three second chances, since The Cook is available in competing video versions — R rated (shorn of 3 1/2 minutes), uncut NC-17, and letterboxed NC-17.
Each, as it turns out, is something of a compromise. The cut version is hardly less explicit than the uncut one but lops off some exposition. The NC- 17 version leaves all that, but mangles Greenaway’s wide-screen compositions; you’re constantly aware of action taking place outside the frame of your TV set. And the letterboxed version reduces the film to a series of tableaux seen through the wrong end of a telescope.
None of this matters much if, like me, you think the whole business is a tiresome, cliché-ridden piece of bolshie avant-gardism overly art-directed. If you have to pick a version to watch, your best bet is probably the NC-17. Grade for all three: C-