The Odd Success of the Food Film
by Mark Palermo
No motion picture subgenre has had so perplexing a success as the food movie. Generally defined as an arty romance centered around elegant cuisine, the food movie jumped to success with 1987's Babette's Feast, and kept its audience through such acclaimed sleepers as Like Water For Chocolate (the 1992 adaptation of Laura Esquivel's novel) and 1996's Big Night (a tale of two restaurant-owning Italians whose brotherhood is united through their culinary art). More recently, big studios have tackled the food movie's commercial prospects, leaving us with the Oscar-nominated Chocolat (2000) and Simply Irresistible (1999), in which Sarah Michelle Gellar is transformed into a brilliant chef through the help of her magical pet crab.
Where these films thrive is in their ability to make audiences wish they could be eating that which they're confined to looking at. In other words, when these movies are most successful, the temptation to leave the theater to get fed is the strongest. Observe the meticulous placement of each of the entrees that grace the Victorian dining tables in Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993). The intended decadence is achieved, but over the course of their length, escapist films shouldn't convince viewers that they'd rather be doing something else.
It's revealing to look at the food movie as the genteel arthouse equivalent of the action picture's pyrotechnic excess. Where Schwarzenegger or Vin Diesel can satiate a viewer's taste for reckless destruction without anyone getting hurt, the food movie presents delectable offerings without guilt over calorie consumption. But the problem is one of eternally delayed pleasure. The emotional catharsis some experience in viewing staged violence isn't transferable to the empty longing of watching other people eat. Even when the food movie uses scrumptious-looking dishes as a metaphor for sex (itself, an act evoking a more satisfying viewer response)—as in Like Water for Chocolate or Chocolat, where high quality deserts unleash a whole community's hidden passions—the provocation in looking without tasting bears no reward for the spectator. At worst, it accentuates a thematic misjudgment within the audiovisual medium.
I'm not disputing these films' individual merits, but am calling into question their adoption of a trend that defies reason. When Miramax Films introduced actress Penelope Cruz to the American mainstream in Woman on Top (2000), they sold her character's sex appeal explicitly upon her character's cooking ability. As TV chef Isabella Oliveira, her recipes make her the desire of all her cooking show's male viewers. It is delusional to expect that a film audience—without immediate means to this taste bud elation—could be carried along with the message of otherworldly food as a means of spiritual transcendence. In Steven Spielberg's Hook (1991), a middle-aged Peter Pan (Robin Williams) reconnects with his childhood fascinations while imagining that he's devouring a great feast. For Pan, attaining this imaginative level at first proves to be as rough a task as I suspect it is for most of us. After all, how much enjoyment does your imagination get you when all your friends pitched in for a pizza and you didn't?
Not surprisingly, the most viscerally memorable of filmdom's food scenes make dining look absolutely repulsive. Who could forget the impending cannibalism that ends The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)? Or John Belushi's use of pastries in his exploding zit impression in National Lampoon's Animal House (1978)? Or the consumption of beetles and monkey brains in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)? Or the projectile puking of cherries in The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and cherry pies in Stand by Me (1986)? Not to mention the godfather of gourmet gore, the graphic consumption of human feces in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò (1975)—a film so unnerving it was once suspected to have been the catalyst for its director's murder. Next to these grotesque aliments, that stale movie theater popcorn starts looking like a delicacy.
Mark Palermo an award-winning film critic and freelance writer whose works have appeared in Canadian Screenwriter and The Coast. He presently lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.