What’s fascinating about this film is that Le Hollandais comes to encompass nearly the entire world these characters live in. There’s brief moments where they move outside of the restaurant (to Michael’s book depository, to a hospital, and to a regular street), but nearly the entire film is capsuled inside the restaurant. Because of this, the restaurant begins to take a life of its own, aided by the film’s incredible art direction.
The green kitchen and the white bathroom are where Georgina and Michael’s affair usually take place. The bathroom is where the characters often go for rejuvenation and release, a clean space where they can escape from the chaos of the red dining room. The kitchen is a place of passion and jealousy. Richard allows Georgina and Michael to have sex in various parts of the kitchen such as the pantry, but it’s also in the kitchen where Albert flies into a rage. Both spaces, while offering breaks from the insanity of the dining room, are both compromised in the end.It’s only when the characters move outside the restaurant that the locations start to feel more natural. The book depository is shot in warm earth tones, allowing Michael and Georgina to have a place where they can finally be free and not have to worry about Albert. Unfortunately, like the bathroom and the kitchen, the depository is a place that can’t be protected forever, even with the large doors and massive doorstopper. While someone like Albert exists, there can’t be any harmony in the world.
This is what helps make The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover so interesting. This is a small world where there’s nothing beyond the characters and their story. This is something that’s common in minimalist films, where there’s only a certain amount of characters and sets present (see: my review of Persona for something similar). Because of this, the world seems more perverse than it normally is. Albert is allowed to cause a ruckus in the restaurant every night, disturbing all the other guests, and generally creating a mockery of the dining experience, yet he’s never thrown out, the police are never called, and everyone just tolerates it, even if it means they get beaten by him and his thugs.
Despite how unpleasant most of the film comes off, there is still a lot to enjoy. The atmosphere present in the film is magnificent, combining large and ornate sets with an incredible score. The actors all play their parts really well, especially Gambon and Mirren. While the film may be a little hard to stomach for some people (the opening scene has Albert and his goons beat and strip a man, then smear excrement on him before urinating on him), it’s still an impressively made film, and one that really carries the experimental nature well, producing a strange film that’s quite magnificent.