Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a 3-D film without having been shot in 3-D. Perceptions of visual depth and breadth are key to the film’s narrative and thematic progression, but it’s not just important how space in used in the film but how the characters and the audience interact and understand them. Sound acts as a particularly important resource for how this space is controlled. One is used to control the other, though ultimately it is mastery of visual space that allows the characters to resist the power wielded by speech. The film traces a power struggle between husband and wife not through psychology or emotion or even violence, but through the dominance and control the characters are able to exert over these two elements, the two foundational senses of the cinema.
The film links space and speech early on. Spica, the thief of the title, hardly stops talking the entire film. His endless prattle, complaining about and mocking nearly everything and everyone around him, is entrancing, even horrifying, and the audience is forced to account for his presence as much due to his speech as with his position in the frame. People listen to him (though often reluctantly) and allow him to run things seemingly because they can’t get a word in edgewise.*
* He does display acts of physical cruelty, including in the opening scene, though these acts of actual violence become much more necessary as the film goes on and his power begins to wane. For the first half, Spica’s power is almost all vocal.
Spica’s authority is reflected in the film’s shot compositions. At the restaurant, he appears like Christ in Leonardo’s The Last Supper (deliberately, of course, especially given Greenaway’s interest in Renaissance painting):
Note the red column behind him, as if Spica is holding up the restaurant with his head. As he talks, Spica is usually placed at the center of things, not just the focus of attention but in the seat of power.
But how much of his power is real, and how much of it is based on momentary control over the visual and auditory elements around him? The introduction of the restaurant itself begins to provide an answer, though it takes some time for its broader implications to become clear. The set appears laid out in a horizontal line, stretching from a loading dock behind the kitchen to the front dining room. The camera tracks with Spica and his entourage as they pass through, the sort of traditional establishing scene meant to make you feel that you have a good grasp of the location’s geography. The restaurant feels large and open, albeit with lots of human activity and an elaborate set design. It’s a busy set but easily navigable in two dimensions with very little three-dimensional depth. By the time the camera reaches Spica’s table, you’ve received a solid orientation of the place. You know how all the pieces of the restaurant fit together, and that we will be observing our characters in the sort of shot seen above, their relationships clear based on the shot’s composition.
This is similar to the kinds of compositions favored by Wes Anderson, who also frames his subjects and locations in flat, often theatrical, spaces, often as part of similar-looking tracking shots. But where Anderson sets up visual space as a framework for investigating character, as if laying them out for examination, Greenaway investigates the space itself. For it becomes clear, not too far into the film, that the restaurant does, in fact, have three dimensions. Within it are many nooks and crannies, rooms and corridors and hideaways away from the straight, horizontal lines we’re initially presented with. Away from Spica’s gaze and speech.
The power of speech to offer a degree of independence becomes more pronounced as the characters weave through the film’s architecture, with Michael and Georgina gaining more lines and more autonomy as they find ways to get away from Spica’s dominance.
Since his speech cannot be directly opposed, it is only by finding and colonizing their own private space that Georgina and Michael can have their affair. These spaces are fragile, obviously, constantly under threat of being discovered by Spica. But away from him they are able to start speaking to one another, building their own reserve of strength, offering up some kind of resistance.
(Music is an important site of resistance, too, boiling underneath the action, building, and finally exploding at the film’s climax. The singing kitchen boy also provides a sonic counerpoint to Spina from the very start of the picture.)
Late in the film, they are able to escape from the restaurant entirely and hide out in Michael’s apartment, where for once Spica has absolutely no control. At about this time Spica’s grasp over his own authority begins to fade. Underlings begin to speak up, Spica’s balanced shot compositions are thrown off, and other characters begin to step into visual spaces where they are the ones in control.
Spica will reassert his control violently and ironically. When Michael is killed, Spica stuffs pages from his books down his throat, simultaneously silencing him and drowning him in words. But it won’t last. The damage is done: the power of sound and space are transferred from Spica to those he has abused. In the final scene Spica is completely stripped of visual and auditory dominance. He is isolated at the front of the dining room (which he enters though a door he had never used until then) and up against the full cast of wronged characters who have taken over the restaurant and its menu. He is also silenced, not through force but through a visual horror. He has lost control of sight and sound, and thus of the movie.
Cook, Thief is a great distillation of and metaphor for cinematic craft, using the audio/visual as the metric for and means by which stories, characters, plots, themes, etc. are measured and judged. t’s a highly stylized film, obviously, but that only helps to highlight the film’s symbolic project. Power in Cook, Thief lies in the hands of the ones who control the cinema.