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Interview with Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon in "The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover."

LOS ANGELES -- Helen Mirren remembers that she took a deep breath after she read the screenplay for "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover," and then she thought, "Well, yes, it is a dangerous film. It's deep and complex and we're not skating around any issues. It's on the cutting edge, quite apart from the content -- look at the style of the filmmaking, the artificiality of it, the strangeness of the dialogue. I knew it was dangerous, but I didn't think it was that dangerous. You know, that X-rated thing, because that's a different kind of thing altogether."

But it was that dangerous. And it was threatened with an X rating by the Motion Picture Code and Ratings Administration And Helen Mirren, who is one of the most distinguished actors in Britain, who has played most of the most important roles in Shakespeare, found herself on a flight to New York to argue that she had not made a dirty movie.

She had certainly made a controversial one. As Peter Greenaway's film made the festival circuit last fall, from Telluride to Toronto, people walked out of the screenings with a strange look on their faces. They had just weathered the end of one of the angriest films ever made, and they had just witnessed an act of cannibalism so shocking that the word itself fails to convey the reality. They had seen a film containing brutality, sadism, torture and murder, and sex scenes fueled by the desperation of people made to live in the atmosphere of rage. They had also seen a dark comedy, because almost all of these unspeakable events take place in an expensive restaurant, during dinner.

The movie stars Michael Gambon as a thug who bullies the restaurant into submission every night, while he makes a pig of himself with his cronies. His wife, played by Mirren, submits to his brutality until one night she locks eyes with a man across the room (Alan Howard), and without a word they get up and go to the toilet and make passionate love. Their sexual encounters continue night after night, until Gambon catches on and orders his henchmen to murder Howard in a gruesomely appropriate way (he is an intellectual, so he gets a book on the French revolution rammed down his throat one page at a time, with a sharp spike).

The wife has her revenge with the cooperation of the cook (Richard Bohringer), and let it be simply said that a cook's skills are required for the revenge she has in mind. And, no, she doesn't have him cook the thief -- what she has in mind is even more appalling.

I saw the movie one night in Los Angeles, and a few days later I sat at breakfast with Helen Mirren and confessed that it had disturbed me -- really touched me -- in a way few films have. It is a film in which anger is not simply expressed, but created; the audience doesn't watch anger, it feels it, and by the end I was surprised to find myself approving of the horrible vengeance inflicted on the thief.

"It gets into a dangerous, dangerous area," Mirren said, "and people come out thinking they have confronted something in themselves. It's a challenge. It would be irresponsible to use the material in this film for simple commercialism. Our film doesn't manipulate. Greenaway does a lot of things to put a distance between the actions and the style. The movie's clearly artificial, for example. My costume changes color according to the different locations -- red in the dining room, green in the kitchen, white in the toilet. It's crazily artificial."

And yet the film's impact is real, and in England, where it was made, it is being seen in many quarters as an attack on Thatcherism -- on what is seen as a politics of greed, in which the rich get richer and the poor are run over roughshod. One interpretation of the film suggests that the thief is Thatcherism, the cook is the nation's docile work force, the wife is Brittania, and the lover is the ineffectual leftist opposition. This scheme is too simplistic to contain such a complex film, but let it be said no one in Britain has come forward to claim the film is in favor of Thatcher.

In America, however, politics and film are strange bedfellows (can you name six Hollywood films in the last 20 years in which any character was identified as a member of any political party?). When "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" was screened for the MPAA, they found it too extreme for the R rating, and offered the choice of an X rating or the limbo of an "unrated" status.

And so Helen Mirren got on the flight to New York.

This was a new role for her, arguing a film's case before a censor board. In England, where she was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, she has played Shakespearian roles from Ophelia and Cleopatra to Isabella and Lady Macbeth, has toured with Peter Brook's company, and has starred in such films as "Savage Messiah," "O Lucky Man!," "The Long Good Friday," "The Mosquito Coast" and "Cal," for which she won the best actress award at Cannes. Now here she was standing up for a film's right to be seen.

"I told the board they absolutely could not legitimately criticize this film on its artistic merit," she said. "It may be pretentious, or boring, or whatever they want to say about it, but they can't deny where its heart is."

They could. They denied the appeal.

"Just in the last week, I've discovered I don't know much about the American rating system," she said. "The whole system is different in England, where a film like this is simply '18 and over.' And in France, anyone over the age of 14 can see this film I'm sure, because it's primarily about food, sex, violence, and art. To the French, the combination of those four elements is what life's absolutely all about.

"But not in this country! Before I spoke to the ratings board, I hardly knew what the R rating meant, but I've come to realize the American system is pretty bad on both levels. I think it's bad for adults, since it makes it difficult for them to see films they might really enjoy. And on the other side of it, children see films that I think are dangerous for them as well."

She shook her head.

"The whole R rating depends on a strange sort of fantasy land," she said, "where all adults are responsible people, and children only ever go to the cinema with their parents. They don't go with babysitters or older brothers, or with the local drug dealer. It's this lovely sort of apple pie fantasy America, that not only doesn't exist in America, it doesn't exist anywhere. It puts too much belief in the responsibility of adults in one direction -- enforcing the R rating -- and not enough belief in the responsibility of adults to choose what they want to see in the other direction. It's very strange and contradictory."

In the case of "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover," Peter Greenaway was clearly operating from a deep pool of passion. He has never made a movie anything like this. His films, in fact, tend to be cerebral exercises in style, intellectual games like "The Draughtsman's Contract," "A Zed and Two Noughts," or "The Belly of an Architect." Audiences walked out of those films bemused, or intellectually stimulated. They debated Greenaway's hidden themes. After "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover," they walk out like they've been mugged.

"I think he's also someone who directs more from his deep subconscious than anyone else," Mirren said. "He writes from his subconscious, and then simply directs."

What did you think the film was about?

"I felt "-- the emphasis was on the 'I' -- "it was about ecology. It is basically about crass, vulgar, consumerism. I saw it as the way mankind is consuming and abusing the world, but that was just my private version of it, and I think that's basically what artists try to do. Painters hate having to explain what their work is about. They always say, it's whatever you want it to be -- because I think that's their intention, to connect with each person's subconscious, and not to try and dictate.

"For all of his intellectualism, I think Peter Greenaway directs from his real inner gut, and he seems to have a very direct channel in that. The only other director I can think of who's close is David Lynch ("Blue Velvet"), who controls and contains his vision more because he is American. He works within the system here. That's what he has to do, so he manages to form his films into something that's acceptable."

Was it a little like Alice in Wonderland, trying to explain all of this to the people on the ratings board?

"The chairman of the board [Richard Heffner] kept going on and on about the 'level of comfort' that an adult would feel taking a child to see this film. 'How comfortable would a parent be, how hot under the collar would he get because he happened to be sitting next to a 9-year old?' Well of course that's the joke of an R rating -- what business would any adult have bringing a 9-year-old to this film?"

What did you say to the board?

"Well, I made a long speech about art, and what was art in filmmaking. I said that if a film was done with a deep, imaginative, artistic intent, even if children do go to see it, I think it's less destructive to them than going to see so many of the horrible films that come out under an R rating. I can't see where anything in our film is more destructive to the human spirit than the sort of mindless violence they do approve for children.

"The thing is, you find yourself arguing within a system that you don't basically believe in. I came to realize very quickly what the rules are, and how they shake down, I think it's philistine, and I think it's censorship."

She smiled bitterly.

"The chairman of the board kept saying, 'We don't believe in censorship. We think this is a fine film, an artistic film, and we don't want to cut a frame of it, and that's why we won't give it an R rating'."


If you look at each individual so-called objectionable thing in the movie, I said, you can find examples of the same thing in other R-rated movies. We've seen human genitals in R-rated movies, and cannibalism, and violence, and brutality. Is it the very strength of this film that makes it objectionable?

Is Greenaway's problem that he does it too well?

"In America, I think that a generation has grown up that's absolutely dead to a certain kind of hostile sex and violence. It has no effect at all," she said, "It's simply movement on the screen. Then a film like ours comes along. In reality what actually happens on the screen, what you see, is no worse than in many R-rated films, but the film language in which it's expressed is so new, so extraordinary. I couldn't really work out why they should feel it's okay to look at this, but not at that, and I thought it must be, in the end, the quality of the film language. It's like a great painting. If a painting is done by Francis Bacon, it has a much greater effect on you, than looking at an advertisement. It has an impact."

In other words, I said, if you really mean it, it's worse than if you're just entertaining people.

"Absolutely. And when you see dead bodies in violent movies, it's not the same as when you see this dead body laying there. The dead body in our film has a particular sort emptiness, doesn't it?"

It looks awfully much like a dead body, I said.

"Yes. Glazed, and garnished with vegetables."

I was so angry at the end, I said, I wanted worse things to happen to the bastard.

"That's what the film demonstrates," she said. "Tyranny breeds tyranny. Look at Chicesceau. Or the way they strung Mussolini and his mistress up. Tyrants often get ripped apart by their subjects, literally limb from limb."

Were you discouraged by your visit with the MPAA? You are a serious actress who took a big chance with a serious director, and the ratings board was simply unwilling or unable to see the film on its own merits.

"I think," she said, "that in a way, it's easier to be the kind of filmmaker that Peter has been if you live in England or in France. It's a lot more difficult here, and those who adhere to that vision, who just can't let go of it, deserve an immense amount of credit."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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