One course of horror, another of refined camp
As Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films, Ralph Fiennes expresses a self-reflexive sense of awe and pleasure each time he causes someone harm. His regenerative capacity to summon up evil is a process of discovery that energizes him. In Mark Mylod’s The Menu, Fiennes returns to the screen as Chef Slowik, a man with similar appetites.
The difference between the two characters is that Slowik’s carefully planned revenge scheme doesn’t actually fulfill him. When someone contradicts him, the chef’s open-mouthed outrage looks enfeebled, as if the blood in his heart has been put on ice.
Fiennes replaces Voldemort’s black cowl with a white chef’s jacket—but the effect is the same. In his kitchen, Slowik rules his realm with the imperiousness of an exiled emperor. To arrive at Hawthorne, his island restaurant, diners must board a small boat that carries them away from the mainland. Koks in the Faroe Islands is a real life equivalent, a plausible source of inspiration for the film. They serve haute cuisine, minimalist fare there in an impressively remote setting.
But The Menu isn’t a culinary adventure movie. The cinematography is as lush as anything on The Chef’s Table. Cool, assessing closeups of modern interior design alternate with microscopic closeups of jewel-colored gels and architectural appetizers. Where The Chef’s Table lacks irony—restaurants are temples devoted to gods of the harvest and their acolytes—The Menu is suffused with it.
Nothing about Hawthorne is meant to be admired. Neither the food, the chef nor the tasteful décor. The expensive artwork and the congregation of neutral tones are acting as camouflage to disguise the prison walls behind them.
The Menu is an “Eat the Rich” fable, and a melting pot mix of two different genres. One of the ingredients is pure horror. A group of wealthy diners is trapped in a mad person’s lair. Suspense is built into the setup. Will Slowik take them out Agatha Christie-style, one by one, or all at once? As the pot begins to boil, the screenwriters divert our attention away from the diners and their impending doom with monologues that are simmering in camp.
Slowik, his employee Elsa (Hong Chau), restaurant critic Lillian (Janet McTeer) and foodie guest Tyler’s (Nicholas Hoult) line readings are all slightly bent. Slowik doesn’t just describe each course before it’s served. He delivers a feverish incantation. Elsa transforms the innocuous job of being a greeter into a menacing specter. She seems to have escaped from a Grimm’s Fairytale. Every time she opens her mouth, metaphorically speaking, frogs and spiders fall off of her tongue. Lillian and Tyler’s reverence for the chef sounds sybaritic, the pronouncements about his cooking hollowed out of meaning.
The Menu eviscerates every aspect of fine dining pretensions by promising to kill off a dozen awful, awfully rich people who’ve spent thousands of dollars for the Chef Slowik experience. But without Tyler’s date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), Slowik wouldn’t have an antagonist and the audience wouldn’t have anybody for whom to root.
There’s no romantic spark between Fiennes and Taylor-Joy. There’s something better. Both actors have unfettered access to their inner villains. Nobody in the kitchen or the dining room stands up to Chef Slowik. The guests are all spellbound by the performative rituals he’s conducting in the kitchen. Margot sees Slowik for what he is, a bully. After the chef assaults the guests with terror, Margot doesn’t let her fear get the better of her. She figures out how to fight back.
Without Peter Greenaway’s film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) hanging about in the ether, The Menu might not have materialized. Both films contend with class conflict and the absurdity of paying exorbitant sums for a meal just because you can. In Greenaway’s film, the chef isn’t out to do harm. He provides a space in the kitchen for the wife and her lover to commingle. He delivers poetic monologues about the food he serves. Thirty years on, The Menu mocks that approach to cooking and defines anyone tangentially involved in the restaurant industry as a glutton ripe for and deserving of punishment.
‘The Menu’ is now playing in Bay Area theaters.