Cinematic culinary fare is a subtle feast, bringing people together, as well as driving them apart. It pairs well with the food we sneak in to view it.
La Grande Bouffe, Like Water for Chocolate, Chef, No Reservations, Julie and Julia – food in the movies. When it’s done right, you can almost smell the frying onions, the beef roasting in its juices, the cake baking in the oven. Some food-centric films get our mouths watering, others not so much. Here are just three favorite food-related films for your dining/reading pleasure.
The Danish film Babette’s Feast (1987) is a gentle, understated film with a redemptive joyousness to it. And the food scenes are incredible; better still, the food is not only delicious, it brings people together.
In a remote coastal village in nineteenth-century Denmark, two pious middle-aged sisters – Philippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), daughters of the deceased local minister – live a devout austere life, as do the few remaining members of their aging congregation. Babette (Stéphane Audran) has fled Paris and works as their servant. For 14 years, she fulfills her duties happily, grateful for the sanctuary she’s been given. When she wins the lottery, rather than return to France, she offers to cook the small congregation a meal fit for a king. It’s an amazingly generous gesture because no expense is spared; in fact, unbeknownst to anyone, Babette’s entire winnings are spent on exotic, expensive, imported ingredients. The villagers are concerned that all this luxury verges on the sinful, and decide to eat the meal without making any comments whatsoever about the food.
As it happens, Martine’s old beau the general (Jarl Kulle), joins them at dinner, unaware of the pact they made. The food is exquisite; he tells the dinner guests about the meals he enjoyed in a famous Parisian restaurant years before. Together, his joy in the feast coupled with Babette’s loyal nature somehow breaks through the staid barriers of the other guests, showing them a spiritual side to the banquet – food in this instance has been the tool to open their minds, to forgive past wrongs and to take joy in life.
Of course, Babette was the chef at that famous Parisian eatery, but she’s spent all her money on her extravagant dinner party and remains with the sisters. A simple story on the surface, Babette’s Feast is about generosity, gratitude, and love. And food – gloriously pleasurable to the eye and inducing mouthwatering responses from audiences for 30 years.
Eat Drink Man Woman
Ang Lee’s 1994 film Eat Drink Man Woman is another standout foodie film. You might see your dad for a Sunday lunch, but chances are your father can’t cook like Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung), a retired master chef. The opening scene is amazing – the effort he goes to create the gustatory delights he brings to the table is compelling. And the food looks so scrumptious, I’m almost salivating as I type.
Widowed Mr. Chu, somewhat downhearted because he’s lost his sense of taste, puts on a lavish spread for his three daughters each week. Cooking for them is his way of showing love. Each daughter, too, is sad in her own way. The oldest, a convert to Christianity, still hurts from a broken affair and now sees it as her duty to care for her father. The youngest daughter has boyfriend issues and is vocal in her rejection of the traditional ways her father espouses. The middle daughter is probably the most interesting of the three. She has a senior corporate position, but resents the fact that she wasn’t permitted to pursue her dream of becoming a chef herself. There’s an air of everyone trying to do what’s expected of them, even though, in the girls’ cases, this conflicts with their modern views. The girls are frustrated with their father and each other.
One of the daughters remarks that the family communicates by eating, yet the reality is that all the time spent preparing food is time away from the family. It’s this sort of perceptiveness that pervades this film with its themes of family, gender roles, generational change, and the notion of children leaving the nest. The food scenes are fabulous, but it’s the story of this family that grabs you.
There’s no gourmet food in this 1982 black comedy, oh no. The focus is on dog food – with a difference. Paul Bartel directed the film and stars alongside Mary Woronov. They play a straitlaced married couple who dream of opening their own restaurant. The film’s whole premise is a bit ludicrous, but it’s darkly funny too and the film has a dedicated cult following.
Paul and Mary’s apartment is near a swingers’ hangout. When a swinger tries to have sex with Mary, Paul hits him on the head with a frying pan and kills him. They take his money and decide to lure other swingers to their place, kill them, take their money, and dispose of the bodies in a compactor. It’s all very nonchalant, so even though it is murder, it’s strangely dispassionate.
Things change when Raoul (Robert Beltran) comes into the picture. He joins the operation, selling the bodies to a dog food manufacturing company. It pays well: Paul and Mary’s dream of owning a restaurant is becoming realizable. Things get complicated when Raoul and Mary begin an affair, but it’s not called Eating Raoul for nothing. Remember in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus when Titus kills Tamora’s sons, cooks them in a pie, and serves it up to her? This is what happens to Raoul – he ends up actually being the dinner when Paul and Mary entertain a real estate agent they’ve engaged to help buy their restaurant.
Bartel was commenting on society’s greed and the lengths people go to satisfy it. There’s a tongue-in-cheek element to the entire film with its deadpan delivery of the lines and matter-of-fact acceptance of murder and cannibalism. It’s so ridiculous it’s funny, but the food in this film doesn’t make you hungry at all.
That’s our mixed entrée of food-related movies. In their own ways, each offers a little insight into the human condition, and at least two of them provide a visual feast. Two out of three ain’t bad.