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What Is a Food Film, Anyway?

Eating and nourishment, or their lack, are at the heart of the greatest food films — most of which aren’t really food films at all

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Jessica holds a peach in a still from Oscar-winning film Parasite
Fuzzy logic in Parasite
Bong Joon-ho/Barunson E&A

Apparently, there are just six truly great food movies: Tampopo, Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, Big Night, Like Water for Chocolate, and Ratatouille. You will of course have seen them all. But to observe the high-stakes slicing of an Italian “timpano” — more accurately a timballo — in Big Night, or the myriad pleasures of an egg in Tampopo, is to consume food without actually eating it. Like the Instagram accounts of quarantined chefs I find myself glued to, it’s a kind of erotic, dissociative escapism: these canonical food movies make lusty dramas of preparing an elaborate feast and serving it, and frankly, I’m not in the mood. While stuck at home, I’m craving films that treat food and eating as an essential detail in their characters’ lives. In the same way that many of the best meals have little to do with what was eaten, the most memorable food films aren’t necessarily about food.

Dillinger is Dead (1969)

Glauco (Michel Piccoli) has a wife but prefers to live like a bachelor, wandering around in his pants and offering spoonfuls of hollowed-out watermelon to the maid in Italian filmmaker Michel Ferreri’s dreamlike satire. Unimpressed by the plate of limp broccoli and wobbling creme caramel his pill-popping wife Anita (Anita Pallenberg) has left out for him, he bins the lot and dons an apron. Ever the resourceful bastard, he marinates a hand revolver in a bowl of olive oil, all the while slicing steak, mandolining celery for a soffrito and grooving to The Four Kents. Keep an eye out too, for Glauco’s Italian store cupboard essentials —Lea & Perrins, Nutella, and Tabasco.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

The recipe for veal escalopes, according to Delphine Seyrig’s Jeanne Dielman, patron saint of depressed housewives and queen of the mise-en-place: bash two veal cutlets with a mallet; flour a clean counter; breadcrumb a plate. Crack an egg into a bowl and beat with a fork, adding a sprinkle of salt. Flour the flattened escalope, dip each side in seasoned egg and dredge in breadcrumbs. Wash hands and cover plate with foil, saving the frying for later. Belgian director Chantal Akerman’s enduring critique of female domesticity utilises stationary camera set-ups, meditative long takes and a three and a half hour running time to convey both the sheer work and utter drudgery that goes into running a household.

Crossing Delancey (1988)

Hot dogs with sauerkraut and mustard and vats of dill pickles; Joan Micklin Silver’s underrated romantic comedy contains at least two of the most important New York food groups. Isabelle (Amy Irving) has a rent-controlled apartment, plenty of friends, a great job organising literary events and no boyfriend. Which is exactly why her Bubbie (Reizl Bozyk) is trying to fix her up with a respectable Jew, pickle guy Sam (Peter Riegert). A romantic, he washes his hands in vanilla and milk to get rid of the smell. From the heavy linen tablecloths and napkin-lined bread baskets at a posh lunch with a poet, to a disastrous date at a new ‘California-Mex’ spot (“more sprouts, less grease”), and a segmented ceramic tray with a different creamy dip in each compartment, the food in this film is deliciously 1980s.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

“The fact that food plays such an important part in my films has everything to do with my family,’’ Martin Scorsese told the New York Times. “Food tells you everything about the way people live and who they are.” There is Travis Bickle’s hot apple pie with cheese in Taxi Driver, the red sauce in Goodfellas, an ice cream thrown at Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman. And then there is Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Warton’s 1920 novel, a luminous period drama about the machinations of high society New York. Formal dinners thrown in honour of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Countess Olenska are beyond decadent, and Scorsese revels in the details, including “2 dishes for each course and a Roman punch in the middle”, exquisitely plated scalloped steamed vegetables, rare roast duck, oysters, a toppling tower of pink shrimp cocktail, and huge bowls overflowing with dates.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

In Patricia Highsmith’s 1950s-set thriller, Tom Ripley is something of a gourmand, but almost none of the food scenes from the novel make it into the movie. “We ate everything without you!” smirks Gwyenth Paltrow (an unlikely story). It is however, one of the great booze films. There are negronis sipped on a yacht, and “fabulous martinis” made by Paltrow’s Marge. Best of all is a sweaty and shirtless Jude Law, drinking a blood orange mimosa, bragging about the Italian espresso he made himself using a fancy new machine, and so impressed by fridge-cold beers in his villa that he “could fuck” the ice box they came from.

Dinner Rush (2000)

Noughties nouveau cuisine clashes with old-school trattoria values in this drama about a bustling Tribeca restaurant. Owner Louis Cropa (Danny Aiello) wants something “traditional and substantial — something that tastes good and smells good” (so, sausage and peppers). His son Udo, also the chef, is cooking up “Montauk lobster and rock shrimp in a champagne shallot sauce with vanilla bean, garnished with salmon caviar and a Tobiko caviar which has a wasabi flavour, and some chives”. The film has big Sex and the City energy, and not just because it stars John Corbett, rye and soda in hand. There is a bitchy restaurant critic who demands a better table, bewigged and wearing a red vinyl trench coat. “When did eating dinner become a Broadway show?” she quips before wolfing down Udo’s showstopper of a meal. There is also a subplot about the mob. Watch this one if you’re feeling nostalgic for the noisy, crowded, Friday night vibe of your favourite bar.

Paris Can Wait (2016)

Wife of Francis Ford, mother of Sofia, and a very capable filmmaker in her own right, Elena Coppola’s directorial debut is a food film in the traditional sense. Eating becomes a form of self-discovery, liberation and sensual pleasure for Anne (Diane Lane), who drives across France with her movie producer husband’s partner Jacques (Arnaud Viard). Anne already knows how to make a banging lemon meringue pie but Jacques is a foodie (or maybe just French), advocating for live cheese and low-intervention red wine, and informing her that guilt is bad for the digestion. He nicknames her Brulée (!) and orders her five different chocolate desserts at dinner. “Does everything remind you of food?” she asks him. Yes.

Moonlight (2016)

“Chill out bruh, my spaghetti-os go hard,” Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) tells childhood friend and former love interest Kevin (André Holland). Kevin has just prepared the chef’s special, arroz con pollo. He’s not Cuban, but they are in Miami. The tenderness with which he spoons black beans onto the plate, unmolds a mound of white rice and adds a squeeze of fresh lime are intentional acts of care. Red wine is poured into a plastic beaker. “Eat your dinner, man,” Kevin says, a loving command. Throughout the film, hunger precludes intimacy; as a kid, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is silent until surrogate father Juan (Mahershala Ali) presents him with a plate of fried chicken. Director Barry Jenkins knows that it’s impossible to have a meaningful conversation on an empty stomach.

Phantom Thread (2018)

Reynolds ‘Hungry Boy’ Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) prefers his asparagus with oil and salt. He does not prefer his asparagus with butter. “I’m admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you prepared it,” he tells girlfriend Alma (Vicky Krieps) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s kinky romantic comedy. Later, she’ll use foraged mushrooms to make him pay. Reynolds’ eating habits (and his vocal opinions about other people’s) say everything about the nature of his appetites. Especially his breakfast order: welsh rarebit with a poached egg; bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam (not strawberry), and a pot of Lapsang souchong. And some sausages.

Parasite (2019)

The “ram-don” in Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning comedy-drama is surely its most iconic dish; a high-low mash-up of instant noodles (a mix of chapaghetti and noguri) topped with sirloin steak. Birthday cake, boxes of pizza, fresh fruit, and a junk food feast are used to communicate information about class and social mobility. Still, Bong’s best and most playful use of food is the humble peach. By rubbing its fuzzy contours in the Park family’s allergic housekeeper’s (Lee Jung-eun) face, the ruthlessly entrepreneurial Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam) punches down, and shows her arse.