A feast for the eyes

From incredible feasts of grandeur to humble homemade dishes, food in film can enchant, amaze and even disgust audiences. Unpicking this relationship, our Editors from Film & TV and Food & Drink will take you through some of their favourite pieces of film and discuss the role of food.

The Menu

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*Contains spoilers*

Mark Mylod’s 2022 epic dark satire, The Menu, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the eccentric Margot, Nicholas Hoult as the star-struck fanboy Tyler and Ralph Fiennes as the enigmatic and contentious head chef, Julian Slowik, crafts a devastating portrait of greed and corruption at the highest level of restaurant culture. Disillusioned by the environment of upper[1]class gluttony and over-indulgence, Slowik’s island-restaurant champions the minimalism and artistry of food, celebrating its function as a communal engagement, and simultaneously critiques the hyper-exclusivity of fine-dining. What better way to say “f*** the rich” than by putting on our plates the absurdity of commodifying our basic desires.

The “breadless bread plate” is the first indicator of the film’s real motivation, the crux of which relies on the greed and arrogance of the guests Throughout the one[1]night tasting course, each dish presented to the customers, who include finance-bros, a film star and his mistress, “Lilian goddamned Bloom”, and a pompous older couple, heightens the tense atmosphere founded in the exemplification of class divides in the kitchen and the dining room. Will Tracy and Seth Reiss’ writing is at once funny and real, with the brilliance of Fiennes as the centrepiece of the film, comically stoic and inexpressive. His food similarly takes centre stage, and if one ignores the backdrop of the “thigh meat” chicken or the “passard egg”, the film does indeed showcase the beauty that fine dining can be.

No one is likeable, yet I found myself lured into revering the mastery of Chef Slowik

The twists and turns of the film are encouraged by the slow degradation of the courses. The “breadless bread plate” is the first indicator of the film’s real motivation, the crux of which relies on the greed and arrogance of the guests. Far from subtle in its critique of privilege, the customers are either angered or impressed with the play on convention, and one thing is for sure, the line “do you know who we are” certainly finds its place in much of the dialogue. No one is likeable, yet I found myself lured into revering the mastery of Chef Slowik, despite him and his workforce being a collection of miserable and tasteless appetisers. The film is absurd in its own right and no character escapes being convicted of their vices, perhaps most oblique in the satire of Tyler’s “bullshit”, in which he burns some leeks, followed by the dark aftermath, which provides the plot its real shock-factor.

For me, it was one of those films that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Weird, fantastical, yet also horrifyingly real. It is one I hope to see recreated and shine in the next generation of filmmakers, in its fusing of social commentary and utter madness. I look forward to what these writers have in store for us in the future.

Midsommar

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*Contains spoilers*

Ari Aster’s 2019 film Midsommar is arguably best known for its disturbing depictions of fictional Swedish rituals, as well as Aster’s ability to push the boundaries of traditional horror with his unflinching approach to violence and gore. However, one aspect of the film that is often overlooked which adds to this sense of unease, and even alludes to the characters’ fate, is the use of food. At its core, Midsommar tells the story of a group of American graduates who journey to a remote Swedish Hårga commune to partake in a long-celebrated festival with their Swedish friend. But what they discover is far from a festive occasion, as they become unwitting witnesses to the sinister rituals of a pagan cult. The film centres on Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), a troubled couple who find themselves drawn deeper into the escalating violence and depravity of the cult’s traditions.

What they discover is far from a festive occasion, as they become unwitting witnesses to the sinister rituals of a pagan cult Throughout the film, food plays an essential role in keeping the tone ominous while reflecting on real Scandinavian traditions. Midsommar’s food stylist and chef Zoe Hegedus aimed to present food that was “naturalistic and rustic” by “using elements from the traditional Swedish cuisine.” For authenticity, produce was used that could have been grown on the farm-style set. Furthermore, Hegedus implemented traditional cooking techniques such as marinating or smoking, inspired by Francis Mallmann, an acclaimed chef known for his nomadic-style cooking.

Dani and Christian regularly dine with the Swedish Hårga cult and consume various hallucinogenic teas and foods, blurring the line between what is real and imagined. One scene in particular sees Dani being offered a full fish to swallow, a gesture that further underscores the unsettling nature of the cult’s traditions. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Christian eats a pie that contains pubic hair and drinks juice that is spiked with menstrual blood, emphasising the repulsive and perverse aspects of the cult’s offerings.

When it comes to eating with others a level of trust is involved whereby one doesn’t typically question the meal given to them. Thus, Aster subverts the typical symbolism of food as a gesture of goodwill and hospitality

It is not just the content of the food that was a critical driver of the film’s narrative however. When it comes to eating with others a level of trust is involved whereby one doesn’t typically question the meal given to them. Thus, Aster subverts the typical symbolism of food as a gesture of goodwill and hospitality. As the film progresses the characters become more distrustful of their hosts which is shown through how they begin to question the content of the food and drink they are presented with.

The events of the film build to the crowning of the festival’s May Queen and subsequent final dinner scene which includes several grotesque and fantastical dishes. This scene, a cyclical allusion to an earlier dinner scene, serves as a resolution to Dani’s character arc and reinforces the idea of the Hårga cult’s belief in the cyclical nature of life and death, further emphasising the importance of food to Aster’s narrative.

Harry Potter

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*Contains spoilers for Harry Potter: The Half-Blood Prince (2009)

The cinematic universe of Harry Potter goes down with a spoonful of sugar. The gentle of Hagrid’s giant is first seen in the bright green frosting of “Happee Birthdae Harry”. The friendship between Ron and Harry is kick[1]started by a trolley-load of chocolate frogs and Every Flavour Beans. Dobby’s mischievous loyalty to Harry is played out in the ominous floating cake, smashed over the Dursley’s guests. We get to know the characters as they get to know each other, in the sociable world of fantastical food. The Great Hall hosts chicken drumsticks, Christmas dinners, and plated[1]ghost’s-heads, along with all of its pupils.

As cakes float, chocolate jumps and beans taste of farts, the unreal becomes real, and the boring, fantastical

Animated sugar might as well be on the Harry Potter cast list as Honeydukes, with its exploding baboons and fudge flies, manages to make a character out of food. Sugar plays an important role elsewhere in the franchise too as Dumbledore’s sweet-tooth sees him use the names of his favourite treats as passwords for his office. I’m not sure how secure “lotus biscoff Kit Kat” is but maybe I’ll give it a go… Sugar not only keeps Dumbledore’s stationery secure but also revives the students after a sneaky attack from dementors in the third movie. As a diabetic I felt seen when Lupin handed chocolate out on the train to boost everyone’s mood (and blood sugar?) after the confrontation.

Chocolate isn’t always a force for good in the movies, however, as in The Half-Blood Prince (2009) Ron is essentially spiked by Romilda Vane’s box of chocolates. The ‘course’ of true love never did run smooth… Unlucky Ron has another troublesome encounter with food and drink in this movie as he is later poisoned by Slughorn’s whiskey. This misfortune is unusual in the pumpkin pastie, butter beer glory that is Hogsmeade and Hogwarts.

None of the eight movies neglect the taste buds as they sing to the senses, realising the magical world. As cakes float, chocolate jumps and beans taste of farts, the unreal becomes real, and the boring, fantastical.

Ponyo

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It’s incredible to me that Studio Ghibli films – typically packed full of regional folklore, talking pigs and magical sootballs – are described as ‘slice of life’. Whose life?

But whether it’s the quaint, quiet moments where a wandering character looks out over the European town they find themselves in; gracefully animated frames of grassy hills rippling with gusts of wind; or two unlikely new friends sitting down and sharing a bao bun, Ghibli films embody so much life and beauty that it’s no surprise they’re so widely loved. Food in particular holds a special place in Hayao Miyazaki’s artistic vision.

This scene is a small source of pure warmth and comfort, like a good bowl of ramen

Ponyo (2010) is the story of a magical goldfish who falls in love with the five-year-old boy, Sōsuke, and transforms into a human to find him. I’d already seen most Ghibli films by nine years old and remember going to see Ponyo in the cinema – to me, Ponyo still feels like a new film, as it will always be the first Ghibli film I watched on the big screen. I faintly remember being overwhelmed by the stormy scenes of crashing waves and flooding roads as Ponyo’s father tries to bring her back to the ocean. But this fades away into a cosy scene indoors, where a mother prepares bowls of ramen for her son and the strange little red-haired girl they brought in from the storm.

It’s no wonder this scene is so adored, with 40 million views on YouTubes and countless re-enactments on TikTok and YouTube shorts – it’s peaceful and comforting, brimming with life and familial love. Like many other Ghibli films, there is no music to accompany the preparation of food. Instead, you hear the faint thundering rain outside their dark windows, the steady footsteps of Sōsuke’s mother walking around the room, the smooth sound of a steaming kettle pouring water into instant noodles. This scene is a small source of pure warmth and comfort, like a good bowl of ramen.

An end note – I really recommend learning to put together a good ramen recipe as a student. Take inspiration from the film: it doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Just a nice instant ramen, a few chopped veggies, maybe add an egg or some ham, and you have a great meal in less than ten minutes, guaranteed to fill you up and keep you warm. It’s exam season, and you deserve to take a minute to stop, breathe, and make this slice of your life a comfortable one.

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