Food is complex. It gives pleasure yet many have an unhealthy relationship with it; food is essential for survival, yet its production is destroying the planet; it encourages social connections and feelings of isolation; the food we eat can make ethical or religious statements and indicate class or ethnicity. Unsurprisingly, films utilise food for symbolic purposes and for plot and thematic development. Culturally, food is sexualised and weaponised – an apple signifies original sin – so if someone is chopping veg or chomping carbohydrates, it’s indicating cinematic significance.
“Look at the boy, look how he eats spaghetti. Exactly the same way his father did.” When Barry Keoghan, in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of the Sacred Deer, discovered everyone eats spaghetti twirling it around a fork he was “more upset than when they told me he was dead.” Shovelling massive forkfuls, Keoghan chillingly explains to Nicole Kidman that death awaits her entire family unless her alcoholic surgeon husband, Colin Farrell (responsible for his father’s death) chooses one to die. Previously the food of love, curtesy of Lady and the Tramp, hereafter spaghetti is sinister! Keoghan’s messy eating symbolises his serious psychological issues, parental loss and destroyed trust in humanity.
Farrell and Kidman share more twisted food moments in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. This time it’s murder by mushrooms. Set during the American Civil War, a pristine residential girls’ school in the South is turned upside down by the arrival of Farrell, a wounded Union soldier. Mounting sexual tension, jealousy between the women and simmering violence (including an amputation!) results in a vengeful Farrell keeping them hostage. Women, tied to the kitchen serving men, use the domestic tools available to them to gain control and freedom – he has a gun, but they’ve got mushrooms!
Fungi are also employed in Daniel Day-Lewis’ final film, Phantom Thread, a sumptuous tale of perverse power games in 1950’s London couture. There’s an immediate power imbalance when the fashion designer meets Alma, a waitress serving him bacon, scones, cream, jam, sausages, and lapsang souchong tea which he insists she memorises; food is control and desire. In London, their affair wanes; cantankerous and controlling, he finds sounds of her buttering and eating toast torturous. To avoid being discarded, Alma adds poisoned mushrooms to his tea. Bedridden, she nurses him to recovery but as he re-asserts control Alma again turns to mushrooms; watching his omelette being prepared, he comprehends the previous and imminent poisoning, yet willingly eats. Alma says, “I want you flat on your back, helpless, tender, open.” A very British take on sadomasochism; mushrooms replace erotic bondage.
A notoriously sexual film food scene is Timothée Chalamet masturbating into a de-stoned peach in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. It’s a testament to the acting and direction that this scene, where his lover eats the peach – “Something that was mine was in his mouth, more his than mine now” – can be moving, rather than hilarious.
Peter Greenaway’s masterpiece The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover is the ultimate food film; an allegory of excessive capitalist greed in Thatcher’s consumerist Britain. Set in an upmarket London restaurant it displays gluttony, excess, savagery, lust and revenge. The set swims with food as the camera laterally pans between the kitchen and restaurant. Michael Gambon, The Thief – a vulgar, sadistic, nouveau-riche gangster – terrorises everyone, especially His Wife, Helen Mirren. Her passionate affair with an intellectual diner, with trysts in the kitchen store rooms and freezer, strongly associates food with lust. Their escape, naked in a van of rotting meat, symbolises wasteful capitalist consumption, corruption and imminent death. Her Lover’s murder (pages of a book are forced down his throat) is shocking; books are weapons, intellect is ridiculed. Revenge is exacted through cannibalism; persuading The Cook to roast the corpse, Mirren holds a gun to Gambon, forcing him to eat.
Food – whether symbolising power, desire, loss, despair, love, murder or moral, social and political disorder – provides an extensive menu for films. It’s perhaps apt that whether it’s the content of Chalamet’s peach or the roasted Lover’s corpse, humans too are part of the food chain.