The movies are excellent at capturing two of the main senses: sound and vision. With the bass turned up high enough, or by sitting in one of those weird vibrating seats, they can even do touch. But aside from the occasional failed scratch-and-sniff experiment back in the day, it’s harder for a film to make you smell or taste something. Or is it?
When we think back to our most memorable moments of food-related films, we remember them having an almost synesthaesic power — through only images, and maybe a little sizzle in the sound mix, we swear we could taste some of the most delicious food we’ve ever eaten. And over the years, plenty of films have chased that sensation, not least because the perfectionism and team dynamic of a kitchen often evokes that of a filmmaker and his crew.
The latest movie to enter the culinary world is all-star Bradley Cooper vehicle “Burnt” (read our review), in which the three-time Oscar nominee plays a badboy chef attempting a comeback. The film opens next week (it was originally planned for a limited bow on Friday, but that was canceled), which seemed to make it the perfect time to look at the history of the foodie movie, from restaurant-set masterpieces to cannibalistic horror. Take a look at the ingredients below, and let us know what you’d be putting on your menu in the comments.
“Babette’s Feast” (1987)
The first Danish film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Gabriel Axel’s “Babette’s Feast” is a rigorously subtle and yet delicately sumptuous film built on self-sacrifice and the notions of expanding ones beliefs through the once denied pleasures. The initially austere movie begins with a 19th century Parisian refugee, Babette Hersant (Stéphane Audran), who seeks shelter in an isolated Danish coastal town, eventually taken in by two strictly puritanical sisters Philippa and Martina (Hanne Stensgaard and Vibeke Hastrup). Babette agrees to be their servant in exchange for asylum and over the next 14 years cooks bland meals that are fitting for the abstemious sisters and congregation in this tiny village. A stroke of luck finds Babette winning the lottery and she chooses to use her windfall to create a luxurious feast for guests who feel its gourmand-ish delights may be too sinful and opulent. Babette finally reveals her prodigious talents and work of art and the guests misgivings blossom into an understated, but profound sense of joy and togetherness. Painstakingly patient, “Babette’s Feast” may sound a little silly on paper —repressed Protestants see the light thanks to a kick-ass meal — but Axel’s restrained, graceful direction is Bressonian as the banquet and the artistry behind it take on a spiritual level of resonance.
“The Baker’s Wife” (1938 )
He’s fallen out of fashion these days for the most part, but Marcel Pagnol (perhaps best known now as the author of the novel “Jean de Florette”) was one of the first internationally celebrated French filmmakers, a celebrated writer who became so obsessed with cinema that he focused almost exclusively on it for a period, and became the first director to be elected to the Académie française. “The Baker’s Wife” might be one of his best — a sweet, pastoral tale, based on a book by Jean Giono, about a baker left distraught when his wife leaves him, and who refuses to provide the village with bread until she comes back to him. Gentle and finely wrought, with a tremendous central performance by the great Gallic stage actor Raimu anchoring it, the film was named Best Foreign Film by the New York Film Critics Circle, but is now remembered best, unfairly, thanks to a stage musical translation by “Wicked” composer Stephen Schwartz.
“Big Night” (1996)
Some movies, critical objective distance be damned, make you go a little squishy inside to think about. For some of us, the joint directorial debut of actors Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, “Big Night” is one of those. Warmer than a restaurant kitchen during the lunchtime rush, it’s a heartfelt story of food, family and first-generation immigrants as two Italian brothers, the temperamental, brilliant chef Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and the pragmatic, philandering maitre d’ Secundo (Tucci) attempt to make a go of their failing 1950s Jersey Shore restaurant. Beset by the small-mindedness of the local residents when it comes to authentic Italian food, (cue the great scene where a customer asks for a side of spaghetti with her risotto), and by the rivalry in love and business of a neighboring restaurateur (Ian Holm) with whose wife (Isabella Rosselini) Secundo is having an affair, the brothers have bickered to the verge of bankruptcy, and finally go all-in on one make-or-break Big Night. The food is exquisite (the centerpiece “timpano” remains a bucket-list dish for this amateur foodie), but it’s really the fraternal relationship that is the best thing about the film, never summed up better than in the final one-take scene in which Secundo makes, cooks, shares out and eats an olive-branch omelette, without a word being spoken.
It seems like forever ago, but there was a time when Jon Favreau didn’t just make behemoth-sized blockbusters. He got his start with nighttime talkfests like “Swingers” (which he didn’t direct, but was still instrumental in) and “Made”. These were hip, exuberant comedies about laid-back, romantic young men and their struggles with self-image, the opposite sex and each other. “Chef”, a charmingly and hopelessly likeable comic trifle, is an attempt to marry the scrappy, do-it-yourself spirit of Favreau’s early indies with the crowd-pleasing, sometimes contrived elements of his Hollywood vehicles. It’s a passion project – and one really does feel the joy that Favreau has poured into every frame of this thing – about a respected Los Angeles chef named Carl Casper who loses his job after a heated flame-out with a snooty restaurant critic and proceeds to embark on a sort of spiritual journey across the country to re-discover his passion for food. His plan? Making modestly-priced and creative sandwiches: food by the people, for the people. It’s a nifty metaphorical conceit. Seemingly fed up with the demands of big-budget moviemaking, Favreau himself is bringing it back to basics. The scenes of casual shit-talking amongst the restaurant staff have a winning, vulgar authenticity, and the almost pornographic shots of food prep are something to behold. Admittedly, there’s some stuff that doesn’t work – a few too many star cameos throw the balance off considerably – and yet Favreau clearly loves food and he understands both the philosophy behind gourmet mealmaking.
“The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” (1989)
Decadence meets surrealism in Peter Greenaway‘s classic stylish gala of crime and romance. “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” is deep-fried in black comedy for those who’ve got the palate for its humor, and unapologetically staged to evoke a sense of hyper-reality – one where costumes adapt to the colors of their rooms, and the principle self-appointed gourmet of French cuisine is a repulsive oaf of a man. Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), the ‘thief,’ takes over venerable French restaurant La Hollandaise, practically keeping the chef, Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer), and the entire staff hostage to his repugnant whims. With his posse of delinquents (including Tim Roth‘s half-wit Mitchell and a near-unrecognizable Ciaran Hinds), Spica verbally abuses everyone and everything around him, but most cruelly his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), who notices a bookish man (Alan Howard) eating clumsily across the room one night, and falls instantly in lust. The film is in its own league in terms of design (Jean-Paul Gaultier‘s costumes, Michael Nyman‘s evocative score, Sacha Vierny‘s eye-watering cinematography working magnetic wonders in tandem), but it’s the predominant use of food and eating as multi-purposed, eroticized, symbols of obsessive consumption to the point of complete decay that embeds the film into your memory forever. Featuring submerged performances (Gambon especially sticks out in one of his career-defining roles), ‘The Cook’ is Greenaway at the peak of his directorial and writing powers, and when it comes to foodie films, utterly in a class of its own.