By Joan Amenn
Food has always been a crucial centerpiece to my life, almost as much and perhaps more than movies, largely because of my heritage. My father had a deep obsession with eating in restaurants to discover what was new and trendy during the organic food movement of the 1970’s. My mother was and remains an outstanding cook whose dinner parties are literally the stuff of legends among our family and friends. Thus, it was no surprise that I became a certified “foodie” as it is now called. After catching the first trailer for Mark Mylod‘s new dark horror-comedy “The Menu” (2022), it instantly clicked with my foodie brain and I am delighted to say I found it delicious.
“The Menu” is, at least on the surface, a satire of the world of food celebrities and those who follow them, sometimes also contributing to their fame. In this rarified atmosphere exists Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) who invites a very select group of diners to join him at his exclusive restaurant located on its own island. Of course, this collection consists of various elites who posture to each other as to how worthy they are of this honor. However, they are unaware that there is about to be a high price to pay for their evening meal.
I’ve dragged my husband to little bistros serving “nouvelle cuisine” (remember that?) and I love to try exotic nibbles (sea urchin and shredded pig ears, anyone?). The self-recognition I felt in seeing some of the high-class foodies in this film was totally deserved and I willingly own that. Guilty as charged as a “food snob.” I admit I recognized the character of Lillian (Janet McTeer), the food editor of Saveur magazine, as someone whose reviews I would probably read. Lillian has become lost in her own power as an influencer which may well be the cautionary tale of the 21st Century. Nicholas Hoult, who is also fantastic in Hulu’s “The Great” if you haven’t seen it, is an obsessed fan of Slowik who eagerly snaps photos of his dishes for an Instagram account so that he can bask in the secondhand glow of his hero’s fame. If my father was a member of the Instagram generation, he certainly would be like Hoult’s character. As a matter of fact, my sister and I howled with laughter at the similarities.
But “The Menu” is about so much more than food and thrills. Sure, it’s got some visually stunning plates that get your mouth watering and glaze your eyes in amazement. However, both the performances and characters are a highlight themselves, especially with who’s leading. Anya Taylor-Joy impressed me with “The Queen’s Gambit” (2020), scared me in “Last Night in Soho” (2022) and has now earned my eternal fangirl enthusiasm with her portrayal of Margot (or rather Erin) in “The Menu.” Margot represents the objective critic that all artists have a love/hate relationship with. Make no mistake, Chef Slowik sees himself as an artist. For better or worse, he has gained fame as the pinnacle of culinary excellence and artistry. However, his character could be any lionized creator who the public has adored to the point that ego has taken over and replaced inspiration.
Margot is not having any of this precious nonsense on her plate though and even dismisses Slowik’s “algae foam” as “pond scum.” Well, she only exaggerated a little. The problem is, Margot wasn’t invited to this extremely expensive experiment in culinary art that has a secret agenda that only Slowik and his staff are aware of. She is a last minute stand-in date for Tyler (Hoult) meaning that she was not curated by Chef Slowik and can therefore judge him and his work with fresh eyes.
The scenes between Fiennes and Taylor-Joy are just pitch perfect. They size each other up and stare each other down and it truly feels like Slowik has met his match because Margot is unlike anyone that he has known in years largely because she isn’t a critic that’s impacted his work. Artists tend to be isolated to begin with but when fame isolates them further, their art inevitably suffers. To maintain his sense of culinary superiority, Slowik is reduced to gimmicks like offering various spreads for bread but not supplying that expected carbohydrate to go with it. He has no passion left for what he once thought was a calling and refers to his dining customers as “Takers” while he and his staff are “Givers.”
Again, Margot isn’t buying his self-pity but recognizes it as a means to escape his intended fate for the rest of the occupants of his exclusive restaurant. Tormented artists who seek revenge on an unappreciative public is an old trope, but Fiennes is far too skilled an actor to play his role broadly for camp. Every glint in his eye and twitch of his mouth speak volumes about his own self-loathing for what he has become which he clearly believes deserves punishment as much as the customers and critics he despises. Slowik has “sold out” and he sees no redemption back from that betrayal of his art.
Margot is the key to this cautionary tale about losing one’s soul for the sake of fame. She gives Slowik one last taste of what originally brought him joy in his work before the inevitable plays out and he is consumed by his revenge that cuts both ways. Maybe I’ve used too many culinary metaphors but the truth is, art is a painful process and we would all like acknowledgement for what it costs us to create, be it with words, paint, sound, or knives and heat. The Margots of the world are reminders that a cheeseburger made with love can be more satisfying than a composed culinary still life.
As a film critic as well as a food lover, I heard the message of “The Menu” loud and clear. My understanding of what the film is saying is that critics play an equally important role in raising awareness and appreciation for cinema, but can also be a destructive force that snuffs out originality. This is true of critics of any artform but “The Menu” seems to be specifically targeting this group in a meta sense. I particularly appreciated how the film skewered critics who are blindly devoted fans, even though these scenes were rather dark. Taylor-Joy is wonderful in representing the audience who experience art with no preconceptions, which is getting increasingly more difficult in this age of social media. We need more films like this to remind us not only the value of art but the value of self-awareness in what we bring to our interpretation of it, now more than ever.