Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a new column by Joshua David Stein which examines eating and drinking on screen.
There are actually at least two clear approaches, I believe, to making a movie about tweezer-food that might have a tolerable chance of success. The first, less often taken, is to dwell amongst the cress. To be like filmmaker Frederick Wiseman — or even be Frederick Wiseman — and to patiently immerse oneself in the rhythms of the kitchen, with minimal voiceover and no plot besides the natural drama of a night's service. This has never been done that I've seen.
The second more common approach to treat food as merely one among many fully realized characters. That is, to make a great movie that happens to contain crystallized aroma of whelk and essence of schnozberry. New York chef Paul Liebrandt, though not an entirely a sympathetic protagonist, is nevertheless a compelling one in A Matter of Taste, a good example of a character-driven film about fine dining. [Spinning Plates, Ratatouille, and Kings of Pastry are also other fine examples.]
Sadly, director Roger Gual's new movie Tasting Menu is neither one nor the other.
Set at the final meal of a many-Michelin starred restaurant on the Costa Brava called Chakula — clearly an elBulli body double — the film offers neither the sustenance of its cuisine nor the charming company of its diners. Instead we're left with a Gosford Park meets Clue meets a room full of foodie assholes. And, man, I'm in enough rooms with foodie assholes as it is.
Mar Vidal (Vicenta N'Dongo), our host, is the number one chef in the world for three years running. That's right, a lady chef at the top of what we presume to be the San Pellegrino list. That's about the most gallant part of the movie since San Pellegrino still maintains a Plessy v. Ferguson-like restaurant list. Anyway, Vidal is closing Chakula for reasons that remain vague. Perhaps she, like Adrià, scored a lucrative endorsement from a Telecom company. Whatever the reason, Chef Vidal has invited a bunch of cliches stolen from other movies and racial stereotypes for a last meal.
At Table II, we have the Before Sunrise table where poor-man's-Ethan Hawke Jan Cornet and billionaire Julie Delpy Claudia Bassols play a divorced couple reunited for one night to rue what might have been and make awkward small talk. She's a successful writer named Rachel Grosman. He's a work-obsessed pediatrician named who gives a fuck. Marc, I guess, is his name.
Nearby there's a table of Japanese investors, one of them ripped from Tampopo (the dandyish Toko Igawa) and the other, with side-swept bangs who looks like he's the one kid from Battle Royale who escaped. At the table, they're joined, inexplicably, by a chatty Cathy named Mina (Gual's wife, the hottie boombottie Marta Torné) who is bumbling, gauche but vivacious.
At another table, a widow Countess (the Irish actress and Sinn Fein supporter Fionulla Flanaghan) does her best imitation of Downton Abbey's Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith)'s sour scowl. She doesn't want to be pitied or treated special but arrives carrying her dead husband's ashes in an urn.
Oh, right. There's also a poor man's George Clooney named Daniel, a New York editor who is dating billionaire Julie Delpy, who is there with his Bitchy Media Colleagues. He's played by Timothy Gibbs, best known as the model for Max Payne.
There is a fair amount of hijinks that is meant to be hilarious. Suggestive notes are delivered to incorrect tables and a boat carrying dessert founders. Eventually, inexplicably, at the end, a Cure cover band arrives and performs on the beach. They don't even bother to plug in their instruments though. That's pretty indicative of the entire movie.
As for food: brief shots that no one enjoys.
In point of fact, Tasting Menu is so trifling and such fluff it isn't worth expounding on any more. But it did make me ponder what some of the prejudices are against fine dining that might films about it so treacherous and bad.
Obviously but, I would argue, not importantly, you can't taste or smell the food on the screen. That was sort of Mull's initial point. But it seems like a cop out. You can't punch Donald Rumsfeld in the face but who didn't enjoy watching the Unknown Known? I'm kidding, but the whole project of art is figuring out Appalachian Trails from one person's bodily experience to another's. So Martin Mulls famous comment that writing about music is like dancing about architecture actually undermines all of art.
Much more of a factor, I would say, is that fine dining occupies that weird intersection between art and luxury good, similar, in my experience, to haute horlogerie. It's both boring and feels indulgent to focus the camera on the consumption / commodity side, that is, on the front of house. Not all fine dining aficionados are effete and dull. Not at all. I bet some of them are great people. But once they cross that threshold, of sipping a fucking margherita from an aloe leaf, fuck 'em. I'm uninterested in their petty bourgeois problems.
This also explains why most of the fine dining films I have seen and liked focus on the chef who, though capable of designing luxurious gowns , is not cut from the same cloth as her patrons. She is on the art side of the equation and therefore the thrill of watching her create is the same age-old one of watching the agon and zygote of creativity form.
That Tasting Menu sucks huevos shouldn't be held up as proof that it is impossible to make a great front of house movie in a fine dining setting. But it will take a director much more skilled, wily and cunning than Gual to make it.
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
Video: Tasting Room Trailer
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