dir: Mark Mylod
The Menu…The fucking Menu.
It’s a glorious and delightful satire of something that can’t be satirised. You can’t satirise the world of high-end dining. It’s beyond satire, beyond parody. You satirise it only by replicating it.
Admittedly I have never been wealthy enough or entitled enough to “enjoy” the kinds of places where they have 14 course degustation dining or where they throw bits of food onto a table, say some poetry and then expect you to eat it without using your hands even, but I’ve read about it (with awe) and watched some of the shows even mentioned in this flick (like the Netflix series Chef’s Table). It is, to me, insane, the height of insanity.
I have only ever had the honour of eating stuff with foam particles or nitrogen cooled ice creams or desserts coated in gold leaf when it’s been work footing the bill for some obscene conference somewhere, so it’s mostly been against my will, but not at gunpoint.
To someone who grew up working class this kind of stuff seems insane, but I am also a man of a certain age. Once you get to a certain age, unless you’ve been involved in cooking for most of your adult life, your taste buds start to dwindle, you’ve drunk or eaten everything available to most people, so you start craving flavours or sensations of some elevated nature, something beyond what other mere mortals get to enjoy.
You want something more, so the prospect of paying hundreds of dollars per head doesn’t seem as alien, as wasteful anymore. But this is an escalating arms race. Restaurants are no longer restaurants – they are test kitchens or food laboratories. Early in this film the head chef bellows at the patrons “Don’t eat”. They are not meant to be eating – they are meant to be savouring, ululating, trembling with ecstasy, but at no stage are they meant to be just eating. Eating is animalistic, crude, disgusting.
What the highest of high end restaurants like Hawthorn are trying to achieve, is something beyond our worthless flesh.
Chef here is played by Ralph Fiennes, played pretty much exactly as you would expect him to play such a role: a mixture of concentration camp Commandant Amon Göth from Schindler’s List, the subtlety and playfulness of Voldemort from the Harry Potter flicks and the gentleness and curiousity of serial killer Francis Dolarhyde from Red Dragon.
There’s a bit of rueful sadness as well, maybe. After all, this is the most acclaimed chef in the world.
His staff are trained like circus animals to within an inch of their lives to respond to commands and loud claps. The way they scream “Yes Chef!” at his every command in unison, and the way they live in a barracks is meant to imply a military mindset.
We might be terrified for them, because this regime seems like a cruel one even before everything starts happening.
The thing is, this flick is riotously funny, and makes absolutely no sense, no real world sense, and yet still somehow works. And I can’t even really put my finger on why it works.
A complete outsider to this world of high end dining, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) has come to the island restaurant as the guest of a complete chef’s fanboy, being Tyler (Nicholas Hoult). Tyler believes. He has paid something like $1400 each for them both to be there. Margot is his guest, but he doesn’t really know Margot.
All she is, is incredulous. She doesn’t feel moved by the monologues prior to the courses, or care about the provenance of the elements, but she does notice that they’re being served stuff that isn’t really food.
She is the little boy laughing at the emperor for being naked, but no-one else notices until it’s way, way too late. She has nothing in common with the other people in the establishment, but eventually the chef himself seems to think that maybe she should be on the staff’s side instead?
Why would that have any relevance? Well, for one thing, the staff do not seem to think that the customers are always right. In fact, the staff seem to think that they can tell the customers what to do, or what not to do, with no repercussions. They can’t speak to their manager, or lodge complaints, or even leave reviews on a website. The island where they are dining seems to magically not have any mobile coverage.
Chef’s maître’d Elsa (the always great Hong Chau) is as steely and imperious as he is, and she is completely and utterly a true believer. She has the look of someone who would either kill or die for her Chef, as do most of these strange staff. When one of the guests complains about the bread course which of course lacks bread entirely, she shuts this finance bro dickhead all the way down, but she also whispers to him that he will have less than he desires but more than he deserves.
That’s pretty chilling. We’re starting to get the impression that the staff not only adore their chef and have contempt for the patrons, but that they actively hate the patrons. Are they like going to spit in their food or something?
What have these assorted luminaries done to deserve such contempt, such loathing on the part of the staff? Well, these rich bastards exist, for one thing, and they have a tremendous sense of entitlement. The Chef and the staff see these terrible people as the reason why their artform has become so degraded. One of the guests is a food critic (Janet McTeer), who has closed entire restaurants with her petty, negative reviews. And the pretentious words that drip from her mouth betray that kind of getting-high-on-your-own-farts criticism that exists for itself and not the benefit of anyone else.
Who else is there, oh yeah a washed up movie star (John Leguziamo, looking very washed up) and his assistant who is desperate to get away from him, a boorish rich jerk who’s been to the restaurant 11 times before but can’t mention a single meal he’s ever had there (Reed Birney).
But, also, there’s Tyler, who desperately wanted to be there. He so desperately wanted to be there that he was happy to sacrifice someone else in order to be able to come and to cry over descriptions of the food. Tyler, who doesn’t really see Margot as a person, or any of them as people, who desperately wants Chef to like him, who loves this food so, so much.
Who loves this world so, so freaking much, and yet doesn’t know a single thing about cooking.
What happens is going to happen, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it or escape it, with the possible exception of Margot, who has to transform from clueless outsider pointing out how absurd this world is, to Final Girl who might find a way to game the system and live to each a cheeseburger another day.
I can’t say that any of it makes sense, as in, almost none of the motivations of anyone else expect for the Chef and Margot make any sense whatsoever, but it doesn’t detract from the movie at all, for my money. I mean, even accepting that Chef is over this whole service industry bullshit and wants some kind of revenge on the world, it makes no sense that all the staff are going along with his, ahem, final solution.
It also makes no sense that Tyler, one of the only people other than the staff that knows what’s coming, would go along with all of this, but he’s played as being so obsessive that it doesn’t seem to bother him.
As well, everyone not only seems to accept their fate, like acquiescent lambs to the slaughter, but others actively embrace it, relish it.
It makes no sense, but it still works, that’s all I can say. Margot’s role in the whole film is mostly to be an audience substitute who just keeps bucking the system and saying “this is bullshit” all the time, but Anya Taylor-Joy is capable of doing that, but I don’t know that I could buy her eating a cheeseburger. That was the only massively implausible part of the movie, for me, not to spoil anything. I have a profoundly strong feeling that she’s never finished a burger in her entire life. I think maybe one time she had an assistant take a bite out of a burger, and then describe the sensation to her, maybe in a hushed voice just in case, but beyond that, it’s purest science fiction.
This is a pretty arch, pretentious storytelling, with some jokes that would only make subscribers to the New Yorker laugh (like the line about going to Brown but not needing student loans? Who the fuck are you getting back at there, you petty screenwriters, you?)
Fiennes is great but it would be more surprising if he fucked up such a gimme role for him. He could have sleepwalked his way through this role and people would still have fallen all over themselves to praise him, but he brings a believable sadness to his character, as well as an almost graspable self-disgust at what he’s become (and the staff he’s sexually harassed), and how he needs to put an end to this.
My sympathy ends at how he thinks his atonement needs to extend to all the staff, but that’s my problem. No-one else seems to have an issue with it, in this latest and much appreciated entry in the “eat the rich” genre of revenge black comedies.
The Menu left me entirely satisfied. I loved it.
9 times I would never pay over a hundred per head for a meal, no matter what short stories are on the menu, and if they’re written by Alice Munro personally out of 10
“Over the next few hours you will ingest fat, salt, sugar, protein, bacteria, fungi, various plants and animals, and, at times, entire ecosystems. But I have to beg of you one thing. It's just one. Do not eat. Taste. Savor. Relish. Consider every morsel that you place inside your mouth. Be mindful. But do not eat. Our menu is too precious for that. And look around you. Here we are on this island. Accept. Accept all of it. And forgive. And on that note... food!” - The Menu