The reputation of this film precedes it, but don't assume you have any idea what you're in for. Unless, that is, you are more informed than me. Intially, I found this film extremely difficult to get into, which isn't surprising, considering Peter Greenaway's filmmaking style. His script is at turns overly verbose and totally silent, but its the wordy parts that are harder to stomach. The camera is nearly always at a discreet distance, without enough close-up shots to allow us to engage with the characters. Much of the time, the experience of this film is akin to watching a theatrical production--an analogy Greenaway seems to encourage with his relatively barren sets, expressionistic lighting, and careful attention to framing. Oh, and excruciatingly long takes, of course. Often after allowing the camera to linger, the static shot will be followed by a swift, long pan through the restaurant in which the bulk of the film takes place.
The domninant theory about the meaning of this film is that it is an allegory about Margaret Thatcher. Honestly, this is a little beyond me. And anyway, if you throw aside the allegory, there's still an awful lot going on in this film. Actually, if you go and read the imdb faqs, there's a fascinating discussion about this film and all the different theories about it. That's here.
I hate to use the world "self-reflexive" again, but let's face it; it's here. Filmmaking is not necessarily coming to the forefront, but Greenaway is clearly saying something about the nature of art, and I think, about filmmaking too. Part of the way he does this is by making the film surrealistic and painterly, as well as stage-like. Everything is blatant in its superficiality--from action that marches in time to the soundtrack, to sets that mirror Dutch paintings. Careful attention is paid to framing, and at the end, the curtain closes.
As the title might lead you to believe, the main players in this film are a cook, a thief, his wife, and her lover. Georgina, the wife (Helen Mirren) begins a wordless affair with Michael (Alan Howard) after making eye contact with him while dining in her husband's restaurant. Minutes later they have sex in the lady's restroom, while Albert (Michael Gambon) dines in the other room. The next time they do it, Georgina takes him back to the kitchen where they fornicate amongst the bread, later, the chickens, after that, a meat locker. Their lovemaking is interspersed with a few rare close-ups... of cooks dicing various ingredients, making an all encompassing comparison to violence, food, and artistry. The cook (Richard Bohringer), hovers around them innocently, and they reveal themselves to him fully, unashamed of their actions, of their nakedness. He is somewhat God-like, controlling the backstage like the director, yet also having free reign over everywhere else. At the same time, his apparent objectivity, in a way, mirrors our own perspective. Like him, we are privy to all the information, yet we are kept at a discreet distance, not able to engage, and so, able to think for ourselves.
While it is hard to say what this film is truly about, certain themes are latent throughout this atmospheric drama (if you want to call it a drama). This film is filled with sex, gluttony, feces, blood, and rot. It opens with Albert and his gang beating a naked man, and smearing him with feces. They leave him in the parking lot, where he becomes surrounded by dogs. Bowed on all fours, he visually becomes one of them--an visual metaphor that defines the characters from then on. The sex scenes take place in bathrooms and amongst the food. It is humanity reduced to its most basal elements. Counteracting this is Michael's oft-noted affinity for books and higher learning. When the lovers escape, his library becomes their haven. When Albert encounters him reading in the restaurant, he notes that Michael must be the only man in the room who has read that book, but every man has read the graffiti on the bathroom walls. He grunts, "Makes you think, doesn't it?" Indeed.
Here's where the super spoilers come in, because I really can't talk about this movie without giving away nearly everything important that happens in it.
Appropriately, Albert kills Michael by shoving books into his mouth. In a jarring moment, the camera pans down from Albert and his goons to reveal Michael, bloodied and moaning on the floor. Like the pro that he is, Greenaway skims over the part where Albert tracks him down, and cuts directly to the gore. At any rate, the dichotomy between art and the physicality of life comes crashing down here as Michael's insulating books become the weapon of his undoing. Still, as much as erudition seems to be distrusted here, art provides the framework for this whole story. Clashes abound throughout the plot between artistry and raw humanity. Most characters seem to possess a little of both. Except for Albert, a monster who knows only how to tear things apart.
This all culminates in an astonishingly disgusting final sequence, which nothing can really prepare you for. Georgina has the dead Michael cooked, and forces Albert to eat him. Michael's body is totally dehumanized, turned into poultry, a soulless piece of meat. It's horrifying, and unforgettable. Finally, in a rare close up, we can see the horror on Albert's face as he becomes a cannibal.