Tuesday, December 6, 2022

“The Menu,” Featuring Dishes Best Served Cold

After the lights came up, I went out and ate a cheeseburger, savoring every last bite. Those who’ve seen The Menu will, I’m sure, understand the implications. Let’s just say that The Menu is about fine dining, taken to a degree that’s absurd, even grotesque. It’s a film that will not be to everyone’s taste, but connoisseurs will find it strange, funny, and horrible. Which is why, on a recent evening, the prime screening at my local multiplex was completely sold out. In an era when many film lovers would rather stay home and watch Netflix, The Menu fills the bill for highly original entertainment.

 We all love to eat, and some of us love to cook. Which is why many filmmakers have produced works that focus on the cooking and eating of a meal. One of the earliest I remember is the poignant Babette’s Feast (1987), in which a 19th century French refugee thanks the Danish villagers who’ve taken her in by way of a spectacular dinner. It took me a while to discover the Japanese Tampopo (1985)  which approaches the preparation and consumption of food in an affectionate but absurdist light. Director Ang Lee, early in his career, made a 1994 Taiwanese film, Eat Drink Man Woman, in which a veteran chef and his three daughters play out the challenges of their daily lives by way of their weekly Sunday meals. Food-making substitutes for love in Mexico’s 1992 Like Water for Chocolate, based on an acclaimed novel. There are many more examples, but I’ll stop with Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (1996), about the emotion that goes into the opening of a family-owned restaurant.

 In most of these movies, the cooking and serving of food becomes a way of showing love. Which makes The Menu a film with a difference. If revenge is a dish best served cold, the chill here is palpable, but there’s some flaming emotion as well. Not that this is obvious from the get-go, when a group of 12 beautiful people board a launch that will take them to a tiny island for the meal of a lifetime. Their host is fabled chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), who introduces each exquisite dish in loving detail, but also rules his open kitchen like a drill sergeant. Some of the offerings are perversely humorous, like the bread plate that consists solely of tiny dabs of oils and sauces, with no bread in sight. Other courses . . .  well, it wouldn’t be fair to say.

 Part of what animates The Menu, aside from a desire to tell a helluva good story, is a disdain for the absurdities of today’s fine dining scene, in which small numbers of diners pay exorbitant sums to feast on the rare and the exotic. Some of the targets of the film’s very dark jokes are snobbish restaurant critics, roistering investment bros, burned-out Hollywood celebrities (John Leguizamo at his slimiest), elitist big-spenders, and foodies who live for moments of gustatory bliss. Chef Slowik clearly resents all those who have elevated his culinary reputation by luring him away from simple food, lovingly cooked. In the role, Ralph Fiennes is a marvel as both genius and madman, capable of both utter coldness and surprising warmth. His opposite number is the restaurant’s one unexpected guest, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Her unusual saucer-eyed beauty seems to make her well-suited to parts in eerie projects like The Witch, Last Night in Soho, and TV’s The Queen’s Gambit. In The Menu she plays a gal who’s more than she seems, and her role here is, well, a whopper.





No comments:

Post a Comment