The Menu

 Everyman, Bristol

Critics challenge: Write about The Menu without resorting to food-based metaphors.

There's a very pretentious, high-end, conceptual chef. There's a small group of foodies, food critics, and very rich people who have been shipped out to an island to experience a night of high gastronomic theatre. We are allowed to observe the occasion: the precision cookery that goes on in the kitchen; some of the back-stage tension among the staff; and the reactions of the patrons to the performance. As the night goes on, we learn more and more about the characters who are prepared to pay thousands of dollars for the experience. It raises the same interesting questions about conceptual food that the play Art raised about conceptual art. But we are allowed to vicariously enjoy fabulous meal in the way we vicariously enjoyed Mrs Harris's lovely dress.

This would have a been a very interesting film. But unfortunately, the is not the film which The Menu turns out to be.  

It's at its most interesting in the opening scenes, when The Chef (Ralph Fiennes) serves up courses which are only a couple of notches more extreme than what one reads about in the actual restaurant pages of the Guardian.  One course is an empty plate of tiny, and doubtless perfect, butters and dips -- with no bread, to represent the fact that much of the world doesn't have basic sustenance. "Breadl-ess bread with accompaniments". Some of the customers think this is a wonderful joke; others would rather have had some actual food. I was pleased that the target of the satire was actual trends in cooking -- foam and jus and tiny scallops served on gigantic rocks. Too often movie-makers still resort to 1960s nouvelle to signify expensive, pretentious food.

But it rapidly turns out that Chef is one-of-those movie psychopaths, who has gather these people together in this remote location for a Reason, and that this Reason is not going to leave anyone alive for the last course. (Mercifully, the big twist is NOT that solyent green is people.) There are courses in which he reveals that he knows more than he ought to about the patrons' personal lives; courses in which customers are physically maimed and a "most dangerous game" sequence in which the men are given a 45 second start and chased through the jungle by kitchen staff. 

Quite a bit of it is clever and some of it is scary but the major reveal comes very early, and it is quite hard to quite believe in anything which happens thereafter. I had an overwhelming sensation that what I was watching was a 1970s episode of Tales of the Unexpected, spread out to an hour and a half. Some of the characterisation is fun; but a lot of it is quite broad. Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the last minute date of ultra-foodie Tyler Ledford (Nicolas Hault). She begs him not to use the phrase "mouth-feel" and a couple of course in asks "Do you mind that I'm not as in to all this as you are." Her presence disrupts the Whole Plan. Without giving twists away; one part of the denouement achieves Pythonesque levels of lunacy; but the other prong is actually quite clever and even moving. The more interesting and less ridiculous punch-line was the one which took the evening back to being about food, rather than about murder. 

The one time I myself went to a Michelin tasting-restaurant, I was served multiple small courses with very intense flavours, using unusual and expensive ingredients that you probably wouldn't have wanted any more of, but which were definitely recognisable as food. (I recall that the sweetbreads, which most people would think of us "challenging" were the hit of the evening.) I believe the real life Heston Blumenthal is committed to making delicious comfort food even more delicious and more comforting -- spending weeks in the lab working out how to make jelly and ice-cream taste like a 1970s birthday party. He wouldn't really stand up and tell his audience that they aren't allowed to just eat it.

Like an over-cooked steak, the film was very well done. Like a Chinese takeaway it was pleasant enough to consume, but left me feeling unsatisfied. Like a meringue, it was sickly and insubstantial. I don't find horror especially palatable, but it was all done in the best possible taste. Sorry. I couldn't stop myself.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you enjoy these reviews, please consider leaving a tip on the Ko-Fi platform. 

If you can afford it, please consider becoming a Patreon, by pledging £1 or more each time I publish an essay on the main blog. (I don't charge for these little reviews.) 

Please do not feed the troll. 

Pledge £1 for each essay.

Make a one-off donation on Ko-Fi


Richard Worth said...

You quite like using food metaphors. A meringue?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Na, ye are quite richt, a dae like usin food basit metaphors.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The chocolate cake costs £1 a slice, the lemon cake costs £1 a slice, so why does that cake there cost £3 a slice?