Film Food

By Thomas Underhill

Jingyu Xu - 'Greetings'

One of the defining moments of recent food cinema is the climactic moment of the 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille (dr. Brad Bird), where the cartoonishly evil restaurant critic Anton Ego is served the titular dish. As he bites into the ratatouille, the virtual camera performs a lightning fast dolly zoom to highlight Ego’s nostalgic trip into his past. Suddenly, we see a different side of the man, a vision of his simpler childhood, where he first fell in love with food through his mother’s ratatouille. Whereas before, we can see Ego only as a snobby caricature who lives in a room the shape of a coffin, now we see what makes him tick; why he reviews food in the first place. The moment is in the film to show the power of Remi’s cooking, but it serves a different effect as well, which is to remind the audience of the simple humanising effect of food.

Filmmakers have often used the technique of showing characters eating food in order to make them more palatable to the audience. Take, for example, the important role of food in mafia movies. Of course, dinner scenes underpin crucial parts of Ford-Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, but the master of this is undoubtably Scorsese. The prison dinner scene from Goodfellas (1990) is one of the most memorable parts, because it allows the audience to see the “wise-guys” as ordinary people even in a prison setting, giving us a conflicting opinion on their actions. Scorsese is occasionally accused of glorifying the criminal lifestyle in this film, but I think it’s more subtle than that. The trick Scorsese plays is to make the gangsters recognisable as people as well as crooks. A similar trick is played in The Irishman (2019), where the simple act of dipping bread into red wine becomes one of the few meaningful human connections shared between mobsters in the film. Scorsese’s genius in these films is in constantly playing with the audiences’ view of these characters. In one scene from Goodfellas, a touching meal is shared between three mobsters and one of their mothers, who cooks a midnight meal for them while they swap anecdotes. But Scorsese never lets the audience forget the presence of a corpse in the back of their car, playing off the humanising meal with the horrific nature of their line of work to create a layered portrait of mafia life.

Joanna Zdunik - 'MartianPotato' Katerina Boyadieva - ‘The Price of Family’

Other films, from the burger discussions and milkshakes of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) to Salieri’s affinity for chocolate in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus (1984) seek to subtly use the same trick to make their murderous characters seem more down to earth. But if this trick can be used to make characters more likeable, it can equally be used to do the opposite. In Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), the Droog’s choice of drink; milk, is intentionally unsettling. In comparison to the connotations of Italian food as warm and homely, the connotations of milk as a drink for young children contrasted with the ceaseless violence perpetrated by Alex and his gang causes a strange disconnect for the audience.

For a more recent example of the potential unsettling nature of food onscreen, look no further than Charlie Kaufman’s surreal horror infused drama I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020). Here, during a pivotal dinner scene none of the copious amounts of food at the table is actually ever seen being eaten. What’s more, the only food focused on by the camera is a lump of ham that has come from apparently maggot infested pigs. It’s not that any of the food on the table looks particularly unappetising, but food has to be shown to be eaten in order to have the full effect. In leaving the plates full, Kaufman adds to the scene’s already uncomfortable and surreal nature. There’s something slightly unattractive about seeing people eat but allowing the audience to witness this unappealing but necessary part of life helps the characters feel more grounded in a sense of reality. Remove that from the screen, and it can disconcert the audience, for better or worse.

Audrey Chan - ‘Sonny Corleone’

There’s another aspect to that scene from Ratatouille that is equally as important, however, and that’s the element of class. When Remi decides to cook Ego ratatouille, the chef Colette replies that ‘it’s peasant food’, and so not fit for a high-class critic like Anton Ego. But rather than disgust Ego, the food transports him back to his simpler, lower class roots. Generally, the more rustic the food is, the more the audience is supposed to relate to the character eating it.

Once again, the contrast to this is just as widely used; high-class food is often employed as a distancing device between the audience and the character. One recent cliché, appearing in TV shows Hannibal, Billions and Succession, is the ortolan, an illegal French delicacy where a rare songbird is drowned in Armagnac and eaten whole, while a napkin is placed over the diner’s head (either to mask the shame or increase the pleasure, depending on who you ask). The point of showing this dish on screen is best exemplified in Succession, where an executive, Tom introduces his assistant Greg to the wonders of the living life as a rich person as an exchange for Greg helping to shred documents relating to abuses within their company. The rare dish is literally treated as a reward for inhumanity and linked inextricably with the concept of wealth. Greg, one of the more down to earth characters in the show, pleads to go to a pizza chain instead, as his character tries half-heartedly to fight his descent into the hideous land of the rich. Unfortunately, once he tastes the ortolan, his fate is sealed.

You can also see this technique in films like Mary Harron’s 2001 black-comedy American Psycho, where much of the conflict comes from the main character, status-obsessed psychopath Patrick Bateman, being unable to gain entry into exclusive restaurants. When murdering one of his first victims, a slightly more high-status colleague, he screams ‘Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now, you fucking stupid bastard!’.

Ayah Al Attar - ‘Matilda’

Maybe my favourite recent example of the links between class and food, however, is Bong Joon-Ho’s recent Oscar winning hit Parasite (2019). In his earlier class allegory Snowpiercer (2013), Bong also links class to food with the insect meat blocks eaten by the lower-class passengers at the back of the train contrasted with the sushi eaten by the upper class at the front of the train. But in Parasite, Bong makes a subtler link with the meal of ‘ram-don’ requested by the rich Park family on their way home. The original Korean dish the Parks ask for is a budget instant noodle dish made by combining two different flavours of supermarket noodles. At first glance, it may appear that the presence of this dish is to humanise the Park family for the audience. Although they’re not a stereotypically evil rich family, they are presented as out-of-touch with reality. While the choice of such a budget comfort food might initially seem to bring them closer to the audience, this illusion is crushed the moment the mother of the Park family asks for cubes of Hanu, the Korean equivalent of Kobe or Wagyu beef, to be put in the mix. The casual use of such an expensive product in a dish like ‘ram-don’ actually exemplifies the difference between the lives of the two central families within Parasite in a simple food-based metaphor.

When thinking about what to write for this piece, I was told a rumour about the Royal Family that gave me a moment of inspiration. The rumour was that the Queen does not allow any photos of her eating to be taken. Even when you’re eating the fanciest dishes, there’s something inherently down-to-earth about eating. And so, the act of eating, or indeed not eating on screen serves the purpose of allowing the audience to see a character do something that’s so quotidian, allowing us to connect to them in a stronger way. And, depending on the food they eat, that too can make us feel different ways about a character without even registering it. Perhaps that’s what I find the most effective about food on film – because of food’s necessity within our lives, we tend not to think about it, even when it’s highlighted on screen, but the effect it has on our perception of character is still there, if you look out for it.

Cale Paul Pearson - ‘Herring Pie’

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