The thief is worse than he appears. In the opening scene his henchmen strip a man in a car park and force faeces down his throat. Afterwards the thief urinates over the man's naked body.
If that is hors d'oeuvre, what's the main course? Sadism, decadence, infidelity, torture and death. Anything to follow? Cannibalism. After such a banquet, no-one will want to eat for the rest of their lives. The film is unwatchable, the horror is so graphic, the language rich like sick.
It is, also, a work of brilliance, painful as a punctured lung, fierce, uncompromised, operatic, sexual, startlingly beautiful and yet poisoned with evil. It regurgitates filth and spews it across the narrative, roaring with hate, throbbing with lust, ravished by inhumanity, sweetened by passion.
The story is allegorical and could apply to any deranged dictatorship from Hitler to Amin to El Salvador. The thief dominates everyone and everything. He owns a fabulous restaurant which becomes his kingdom. He bullies and berates his chef, kitchen staff and customers in the way that he does his wife.
Such power is violent and addictive, his source of anger reflected in the grossest vulgarity. His mind is a cesspit, fed with insults and paranoia. His wife takes a lover, a man who reads at the table, and they snatch sex, during meals, in the kitchen storerooms.
Michael Gambon's thief is a gabbering hulk of raw brutality. Helen Mirren, as his wife, is cunning and quick like a fox, in contrast to Alan Howard, as her lover, who moves with shy deliberation towards the cataclysm. Peter Greenaway has created from the sewer of his subconcious, something terrible and wonderful.
Angus Wolfe Murray
The Scotsman, 14.10.89