“We’ll endeavor to make your evening as pleasant as possible.”
Full of folly and fear and glazed with the false pursuit of confectionary perfection, The Menu is fun fodder worth chewing on and sinking into. This is the type of film you experience because it’s so well made, and much like its more than obvious 1962 inspiration The Exterminating Angel from the great surrealist Luis Buñuel, The Menu criticizes both its characters and its audience; here the satire is to the tune of a repetitive, demonstrative, attention grabbing clap. We all should mostly dislike these characters, but we likely know them and a few of us might be them. Cinema is better when films like this one resonate, register, and occasionally accost the audience. You’re unlikely to feel comfortable with this one, and that’s the point of The Menu. Enjoyment is an afterthought. The experience is the selling point. Like the wealthy guests, we sit there in wonder no matter the cost.
To dine at the offshore and sacrosanct Hawthorne is a singular experience, which most of its guests take for granted; they all believe that they deserve to be part of the lucky few to dine there, but don’t know why they were invited this time either. That especially goes for Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), the only surprise guest on the list, and the most challenging of the bunch. She accompanies Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a foodie obsessive exposed to have no real chops in the kitchen, and as the film unfolds we slowly get to see why every person is seated in the window lined room, and how they’ve all sucked the joy out of cooking for head chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). This is a slow building feast working towards the slaughter of the suckling pig, and an eventual rapture to boot. The Menu is the most European influenced English language film I’ve seen in years, save for the works of maestro Yorgos Lanthimos. I loved nearly every brutal and berating and condescending beat.
There are so many feelings which fuel all of the finesse in the script for The Menu. It is obsessive, nefarious, nostalgic and tender in spots. At the center is the white coated, calculated, calm and surgical Slowik who directs his glass castle like so many fine dining establishments do nowadays; you can imagine them wanting to blast Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” over every plating. He’s an appropriately named slow burning candle serving as the face and the voice, but never the hands doing the cooking. He tells guests what they’re about to eat yet never makes the meal his own. Slowik is a service worker who’s distanced himself from the joys of his craft by pursuing the pleasure of others rather than what brings him fulfillment. And so it is appropriate that Margot should be dining at Hawthorne. She too is in the service industry, albeit in a very different line of work, but Slowik sees a flame in her that no longer burns in his hollowed out soul; she survives by satisfying her customers and he dies a little bit more every service by appeasing his guests and trends. Their tastes are different but their appetites align for one of the most rousing and satisfying finales to a film from 2022. To call it a chef’s kiss is an understatement.
About a year ago, I went to a local dining experience with a curated menu. Most everything was good and a lot of the meal was interesting. But not once over the seven courses did I taste any love; it was all reheating, manipulation, fancy plating with tweezers. I too am guilty of the same from time to time. An early moment in The Menu took me back to that meal, and I completely understood Margot. While the guests are being shipped to Hawthorne, they’re served an oyster topped with a fancy emulsion and lemon caviar. Tyler takes pictures and laughs at how delicious it is; he could inhale a fart and find some redeeming quality. But Margot simply says it was good, and that she prefers just the oyster. The meal I mentioned started just the same. A tender, viscous, perfectly shucked oyster was topped with an overpowering and terribly paired pickled rhubarb. I knew that the attempt was to recreate a mignonette and to utilize seasonal produce, but as we come to discover from The Menu, oftentimes less is more, that restraint can lift constraints, and that while most Michelin starred fine dining has a time and a place, sometimes all you really want is a fucking burger. I crave more juicy films like this one.
“We must embrace the flame.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5