There is an entire genre of films devoted to food and restaurants, but The Menuis something different. A foodie horror movie, it’s also a comedy of the very blackest hue – darker than caviar and ladled out in equally parsimonious spoonfuls. It’s not the first feature that has remorselessly satirised trendy people paying a fortune for meals with artistic pretensions, but most of those earlier efforts, such as Daniel Cohen’s The Chef (2012), are playful, screwball comedies. The Menu plays for keeps.
Try and imagine a foodie film made by Quentin Tarantino – all fun and games until lots of people get hurt. The actual director is Mark Mylod, best known for his work in television series such as Game of Thrones and Succession. The same applies to writers, Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, also known for their TV scripts. This translates into an economical style of filmmaking, full of brisk dialogue and rapid cuts, but there’s a superficiality to this approach. We’re never allowed to get bored or distracted, but neither can we engage with any of the characters.
Most of the guests are so instantly dislikable we relish their discomfort, until the uneasy feeling grows on us that the joke has gone too far. Whether one leaves the cinema snickering, or feeling slightly queasy, may depend on the depth of one’s class hatred, because The Menu is a full-scale political parable disguised as a spoof.
Hawthorne is the most exclusive and expensive of restaurants, run by master chef, Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Situated on an island, it can only be reached by boat. To even get a booking is a privilege, which adds to the guests’ feelings of entitlement – not that many of them require further additions.
This élite crew consists of a successful businessman and his wife (Reed Birney and Judith Light); a B-grade actor and his girlfriend/assistant (John Leguizamo and Aimee Carrero); a waspish food critic and her editor (Janet McTeer and Paul Adelstein); three smug tech investors still on the right side of middle-age (Rob Yang, Mark St. Cyr, Arturo Castro); Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a pathetic, self-styled foodie, and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), his date for the night. Even before they’ve gotten off the boat, we are repelled by most of them.
Upon landing they are met by the restaurant manager, Ilsa (Hong Chau), who has all the charm of a prison warden, and given a quick tour of the island. We see the garden where food is grown, the cool room where meat is hung, and the spartan dormitory where the staff sleep. Already, this dining experience is taking on a creepy aspect.
Slowik is the complete despot in the kitchen and on the island. His assistants aren’t employees, but members of a cult, devoted to the whims of a Supreme Leader. When the guests are seated at their tables, the Chef makes his grand entrance, and proceeds to tell them they will be eating an entire “ecosystem” this evening.
The story proceeds in chapters, following each course on the menu, from the amuse-bouche to dessert. Each dish gets a personal introduction from Slowik – occasionally an embarrassingly personal one. These speeches find him reminiscing, confessing or philosophising in a way that initiallly seems amusing and daring, as one might expect from a man of genius. Yet as the courses grow stranger – (the bread course is completely conceptual) – the speeches become tinged with anger, self-loathing, megalomania, and contempt. Slowik is a psycho, a tortured artist who has grown weary of putting his creations in front of wealthy swine.
This exclusive meal is intended as a last supper for a representative group of customers he has grown to despise. Every guest has been hand-picked; their sins being toasted onto tacos that appear on their plates like supeonas calling them to account. The sole exception is Margot, whom Tyler has enlisted as a last-minute substitute after a bust-up with his girlfriend.
For Slowik, Margot is the fly in the ointment who has undermined his immaculate preparations. He has to find a way of classifying her, discovering whether she belongs with the rich and privileged diners, or the workers in the kitchen. It’s here we begin to see The Menu as a story about class and inequality, which swiftly translates into a reign of terror inflicted by the serfs on their social superiors.
When Margot spies a photo of a young Slowik flipping burgers, she can see he has risen from the working classes to his current eminence. With success he has arrived at a nihilistic worldview in which an aristocracy of talent is enslaved and demeaned by the fatuous, undeserving rich. Tonight’s meal is intended as the apocalyptic finale of his career: a political statement and a fearsome act of revenge.
In its structure, The Menu borrows from many different sources. The setting conjures up thoughts of other cinematic islands, where the resident dictator might be Dr. Moreau or Dr. No. As most of the action takes place within the restaurant, one remembers the guests in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), who are unable to leave the room. On the only occasion Slowik’s guests are invited to leave, the men are hunted down by kitchen hands, in a scenario familiar from B-grade exploitation thrillers in which the villain pretends to give his victims a sporting chance.
Slowik’s menu is designed to break the pride and spirit of the diners in progressive stages, until their only thoughts are of survival. In dramatic terms, the characters are little more than pawns, which doesn’t allow for memorable acting. As representative types they are caricatures, even Ralph Fiennes, who plays Slowik with the same severity he brought to the title role of Coriolanus (2011). After his appearances in The Favourite (2018), and the TV series, The Great, Nicholas Hoult seems destined to play the obsequious idiot. Only Anya Taylor-Joy has a role that acquires a little light and shade.
The obvious film to watch alongside this one is Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness, which will be at the cinemas in a few weeks. Once again, the rich and decadent are the targets, although the humour is keener and more subtle, at least until the vomiting starts. The motivating force behind such films seems to be a sense of disgust at the incredible wealth and power concentrated nowadays in the hands of a small group of otherwise undistinguished people. The mega-rich are engaged in a full-time search for ways to spend their money, from expensive restaurants to luxury travel. They buy art, they bankroll movies and political candidates, with the same level of disinterest. Satire is perhaps the only weapon that may be used against them, but it’s a blunt knife at best. Maybe that’s why, in The Menu, the humorous rapidly devolves into the murderous.
Directed by Mark Mylod
Written by Seth Reiss & Will Tracy
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, John Leguizamo, Aimee Carrero
Paul Adelstein, Reed Birney, Judith Light, Rob Yang, Mark St. Cyr, Arturo Castro, Rebecca Koon, Christina Brucato
USA, rated MA 15+, 106 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 26 November, 2022