With a turkey banquet in my immediate future, thoughts happily turn to films which explore the rich connotations of food in our lives- how it brings us together (for better or worse), comforts us, and conjures memories of past events and associations. There's also a darker side, with food a potent metaphor for greed, gluttony and privation.
Predictably, great films with peerless food scenes abound: among them, Tom and
the wench eyeing each other hungrily as they devour game in "Tom Jones" (1962), the glorious banquet that concludes "The Leopard" (1963), the pie-eating contest in "Stand By Me"(1986), and the lavish feast created for Louis XIV in "Vatel" (2000).
My own top picks for food-themed movies were all released in the past twenty years, and most emanate from distant shores. So, let's take a little trip around the world.
First stop: Denmark, and a quiet, lustrous gem called "Babette's Feast" (1988). Based on a story by Isak Dinesen, and directed by Gabriel Axel, this is a fable of two aging sisters who've given their lives to religion, never venturing from their town of birth. A young French woman named Babette comes into their midst and ends up performing an act of astonishing grace and selflessness. To celebrate the birthday of the sisters' beloved, late pastor, Babette invites them and a few other townsfolk to share in a magnificent meal, the greater significance of which soon becomes clear. (Don't miss the old general's speech at the conclusion- it is unforgettable).
Next, in "Mostly Martha" (2001), we hop to Germany, and encounter the title character, an exacting young chef whose impressive culinary skills overcompensate for an inability to thrive outside a kitchen. Several events- the death of her sister, the adoption of her niece, and finally, the encroachment of a male Italian chef in her kitchen- force a re-assessment of her life. This heartwarming story rings consistently true thanks to uniformly fine acting, and gourmets will delight in the comforting universe of aromatic kitchens and preparation of fabulous food.
Now it's time for a warmer climate: Mexico. The sumptuously filmed "Like Water For Chocolate" (1992) tells the tale of Tita, the youngest of three daughters, who by family tradition is forbidden from marrying until her evil mother dies. Her lover Pedro misguidedly marries Tita's older sister just to be near her. The kitchen, which could be her prison, becomes Tita's refuge and solace. Her almost mystical way with food helps her cope with the ever-present love she is officially denied, and reflects her fiery, indomitable spirit. Lush, passionate and flavorful as a bowl of chilies, this is a movie worth savoring.
Next, we take the long voyage to Taipei, where noted director Ang Lee filmed "Eat Drink Man Woman" (1994), the story of a tradition-bound master chef and his three very different daughters. The chasm in generational attitudes is made painfully evident at the father's sumptuous weekly dinner which the whole family is forced to attend. Though the film is Taiwanese, the emotions are universal, which is somehow comforting. And even though this film concerns family as much as food, the kitchen scenes will have you phoning for Chinese take-out by the closing titles.
Jumping over to France, the center of haute cuisine, we discover another flavorful suspense film the French are so adept at concocting. Bernard Rapp's "A Matter of Taste" (2000) concerns suave tycoon Frederic Delamont (Bernard Giraudeau), who hires handsome waiter Nicolas (Jean-Pierre Lorit) to be his official food taster. It seems the reclusive millionaire has a highly sensitized palate, with severe allergies to fish and cheese. The younger man soon learns he'll have to earn his generous salary, as the demanding Frederic virtually takes over his life. Giraudeau gives a nuanced, unnerving performance as the neurotic employer, while Lorit also scores as the bewildered Nicolas, attracted to Delamont's power, but uneasy about the bizarre emotional undercurrents in his new job. For fans of subtle psychological thrillers, this gripping tale is sure to go down easy.
At last, we return to the States and the irresistible "Big Night" (1996), about two Italian immigrant brothers (Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci) struggling to launch a restaurant with authentic Italian cooking in 1950's New Jersey. By this I mean lovingly prepared, delicately seasoned risotto, not the spaghetti and meatballs served up by successful competitor Pascal (a superb Ian Holm). The film is a small joy in its recreation of period, and in bravura turns by its ensemble cast, particularly Shalhoub, who steals the picture as Primo, the eccentric, uncompromising chef.
This Thanksgiving, may all your turkeys be tender...