At Moviefied we took a journey to explore the rich connection between food in our lives and how it is represented in the films we love: bringing us together, comforting us, and summoning up memories (not always good) of our friends and family, present and lost. So, in honor of Thanksgiving, Moviefied explores the sensuous experience of food in film, movies in which food is a central theme, and in which sitting down to a big meal is a sensually cathartic experience. Besides sex, there is nothing more stimulating and emotionally impacting than the beauty of food either in preparing it or in consuming it. The following movies tantalize the senses and inspire us to higher levels of living.
David’s Top Five
As one of the daughters remarks in Eat Drink Man Woman, “we communicate through food.” Food matters to us. A dish, gourmet or fast, will stick in my memory like a song that captures a significant moment in time. I can still remember the watermelon, feta and black olive salad I had in Seattle with Myrna (my Moviefied other half) back in 2004. I will never forget a long ago, happy moment from my parent’s otherwise unhappy marriage. Together they spent a Saturday afternoon at home making ravioli. They redirected the passion and anger that was usually spent in weekend arguments into the most delicious and perfect ravioli I’ve ever tasted: a meaty fullness tucked inside light pasta pillows with a tomato sauce that complemented its rich flavor. Together they had created an art which subsumed animosities.
The following films express the importance and joy that good food can bring to our lives. From the passion and skill in preparing a fine dinner to the joy and euphoria of consuming that dinner, it all comes down to a love shared between the chef and the diner: the father and his daughters, a girl and the boy she loves, the brother and his brother, the grateful refugee and her rescuers, and, my parents and me.
“An artist is never poor,” says Babette (Stephane Audran). Watching this film is, indeed, a feast—a feast for the senses. In mid-nineteenth century Denmark, Babette prepares a selfless, extravagant, thank-you-for-fourteen-years-of-kindness meal for two ladies who took her in during the French counterrevolution. The artistry of a chef has never before or since been shown so deliciously and exquisitely as in Babette’s Feast. All of our senses are stimulated: the uncanny live turtle groaning, unaware that its destiny is to become a fine Potage à la Tortue or turtle soup; the sweetness of figs and glazed fruits, the happy dizziness from too much Veuve Clicquot champagne, the clink of fine crystal and china, and the mouthwatering reaction to “Cailles en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine” or quail in a puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce. One of the dinner guests, General Lorens Löwenhielm (a former suitor to one of the two ladies), responds to the quail by enumerating on a Persian chef that made a similar dish, “This woman, this head chef, had the ability to transform a dinner into a kind of love affair, a love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.” Babette’s Feast transforms a film into a kind of love affair for the senses.
In the opening credits a man prepares a meal like a warrior in battle—a skilled warrior who is more artist than soldier. Observing him cook is to be aware of centuries of trial and error in the evolution of Chinese cooking which, at this moment, has come to perfection in his hands. Director Ang Lee (Life of Pi) uses gorgeous food scenes to enhance the film’s simple narrative, much like a good musical number elevates an ordinary script. The cook is a widower and aging executive chef, Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung), who lives with his three grown daughters. A man of few words and many past mistakes, he requires his daughters to be present every Sunday for his lavish dinners. During these Sunday dinners each daughter reveals life-changing news that alters the family. But it’s always the father who conceals himself, his emotions and fears in order to remain stalwart. Unlike his daughter who communicates over food, he “communicates through food.”
Big Night, directed and starring Stanley Tucci, is a crescendo to one big orgasmic orgy of food. It’s been sixteen years since I last saw Big Night; the fact that two Italian-immigrant brothers are about to lose their restaurant and watch their dreams crushed is submerged by my memory of the film’s final big feast. Much like remembering the great sex you had but not the date that preceded your final venture into the bedroom. Sex is most playfully metaphoric when über-passionate chef Primo (Tony Shalhoub) whisks a scoop of sauce onto his finger and into the mouth of his crush (Allison Janney) to which she responds, “oh, my God, oh my God, OH-MY-GOD.” Primo takes their metaphoric orgasm to a spiritual level, “To eat good food is to be close to God.” Once again, food is the purer form of communication. The movie seals the culinary deal with preparation and presentation of il timapano (an extravagant pasta, meat, and egg dish of gargantuan proportions). Watching the careful preparation and then the serving of this dish makes me want to close my laptop and run out to NYC’s best Italian restaurant.
What! An animated film about a rat that can cook? A rat called Remy (Patton Oswalt) with “a highly developed sense of taste and smell”? What’s amazing is that this is an animated film about the gastronomic arts that successfully appeals to our hearts through our stomachs, and it works even though what we see is animated representations of food. We don’t have the sensuous experience of watching real food being chopped, diced and stirred, as in Babette’s Feast, but the passion and joy for cooking is present. Obviously, the rat can cook, but his stroke of luck comes when he chooses to prepare ratatouille, a simple “peasant” dish, for a villainous food critic, Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole). The choice is a lucky one, because he chooses to prepare a dish that sparks a happy memory; Anton Ego is immediately transported to his mother’s kitchen where he, as a young un-jaded boy, savors his mother’s homemade ratatouille. The dish communicates to his heart, proving, once again, to reach the heart you must start with the palate. Anton Ego’s critique (wonderfully voiced by Peter O’Toole) touches all artists of any art form, “Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Like Water for Chocolate magically expresses the power that passionate cooking can have over us. Again, there is a fine line between good food and sexual longing. In this case the yearning is deep. Tita (Lumi Cavazos) is forbidden to marry, Pedro (Marco Leonardi), the boy whom she loves, and is forced to stay with her overbearing mother. Her life and happiness rests in the kitchen. It is through cooking that Tita releases her emotions. Her tears falling into the batter of her sister’s wedding cake eventually sends the guests into a state of melancholia and weeping.
Water and fire, essential elements for cooking, are present throughout the film and represent an important balance of passion: to make the perfect hot chocolate you must first bring the water to boil before you add the chocolate.
Myrna’s Top Five
Set in nineteenth century Denmark, Babette, a refugee, arrives at the door of two adult sisters. She begs them to take her in and commits to work for them as housekeeper and cook. After fourteen years, Babette experiences some good fortune, then begs the sisters to allow her to prepare the dinner they are planning to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of their father’s birth. Babette prepares the feast of a lifetime for the sisters and members of the church. Babette’s Feast is about edible art, and Babette is the virtuoso. She has “the ability to transform a dinner into a kind of love affair,” a tour de force for the taste buds and the heart. A deliberately demure story with muted colors and pensive characters which actually overflows with contrasts and discrete dynamics; it is a quiet celebration of grace. Babette’s Feast remains the gold standard of food movies.
Eat Drink Man Woman is director Ang Lee’s look at the ethnical and sexual conflicts in a Chinese family, with meals at the center of the film. Its themes of family, selfishness, obligations, and eventual understanding are bound to strike a cord no matter where you are from. Eat Drink Man Woman has plenty of emotional action going on within the characters and their quiet interactions. Every frame pops with energy. This study of social manners and repressed feelings became Lee’s specialty. Eat Drink Man Woman is a superb film. It’s insightful, unpredictable, a delicacy but also something more, something like food for the soul.
3. Big Night (1996)
Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) are two Italian brothers who emigrate to America with the dream of running a successful restaurant. As their business struggles, they pin all of their hopes on an extravagant banquet honoring star vocalist Louis Prima, whom a friend has promised to bring to the restaurant. Lavish, luscious, and delicious-looking, the brothers pour their hearts into preparing the perfect dinner for the big night. On the menu of this food-centered comedy is a perfect balance between comedy and passion. Though things don’t end up going as planned with the dinner, Big Night hits all the right spots, taking us through a wonderful emotional and a sensual ride, a film of great wisdom and delight.
Martha, an obsessive-compulsive chef, lives life like a recluse in Hamburg, traveling only between the kitchen of the restaurant she works in and the kitchen in her home. The unexpected death of her sister leaves her with a niece, Lina. But once Lina moves in, her routine is disturbed. A sous-chef, Mario, whom her boss hires very much against her wishes, becomes smitten with her. Beginning to win her over, Mario bans Martha from her own kitchen and with Lina’s help, they cook up a wonderful feast. Now the fun begins as the three break every rule of dining by eating fresh pasta, vegetables, meats and bread with their hands while sitting on the living room floor. But the high point of this feast comes with dessert, when, after Lina falls asleep, Mario feeds a blindfolded Martha his white wine sauce, while she whispers back its ingredients. The film turns food into the substance of human connection, showing us how deeply food penetrates our being, from our carnal needs to our emotions.
The wife of a savage crime-boss engages in a clandestine romance with a bookseller between meals at her husband’s restaurant. Food, sex, murder, torture and cannibalism are the exotic dishes served in this beautiful film. The significant difference which sets The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover apart from all other food films is that this one depicts dining in the most alarming of ways. There is no other food film I can think of that exhibits the numerous emotions and arousals which cooking and eating can muster. This is not your average motion picture about food; this British masterpiece avoids the representation of food as a wondrous unifying art that brings family, friends and strangers to the table for deep conversations and realizations. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover brings out the savagery and sexuality in human nature. It’s perverse, twisted, erotic, and titillating while melding the sexy and the repulsive. Yummy!
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