WHAT IS OUR view of food in cinemas? Well, obviously, not being monsters, we remain violently opposed to the idea. For decades we’ve had to endure the sickening, mildewed stench of popcorn. In recent years, multiplexes have invited punters to consume hotdogs (flavoured with the finest pink) and absurdly complex nacho platters (a tub of orange Plasticine beside a pot of cold tomato soup) within their increasingly bland establishments. Ignore all those malcontents who retch when remembering smokers in mainstream cinemas. If the current trend continues, the chap beside you will soon be carving a joint of lamb while waiting for the main feature to begin.
Oh hang on. The subject for discussion is food in cinema. Well, it’s always been there. One of the most famous early experiments in film theory saw Lev Kuleshov, the great Russian film-maker, interposing shots of a man’s face with images of a girl, a coffin and a bowl of soup. The face was the same in each case. But, whereas the actor seemed lascivious when apparently contemplating the girl and sad when staring at the coffin, he appeared hungry when supposedly eyeing up the food. One hundred years ago we learnt that just displaying food alters the meaning of a scene.˚ Charlie Chaplin ate his boot in The Gold Rush. Jimmy Cagney shoved a grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face during The Public Enemy. The Marx Brothers didn’t consume duck soup in Duck Soup. Few great films get by without having something to do with comestibles.
When attempting an analysis of eating in cinema, the temptation is always to celebrate those films that revel in the deliciousness of food and its power to bring people together. One might argue that (like painting) cinema is poorly equipped to grapple with the subject. After taste and smell, vision is, after all, only the third most important sense for the expectant diner. Yet dozens of film-makers (and still-life painters, for that matter) have proved up to the task.
Few conversations on the subject get far without mentioning the groaning tables in Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (1987). Following a spirited woman as, after winning the lottery, she prepares a banquet for her employers and the local gentlefolk, the film features a justifiably celebrated array of stomach-rumbling delicacies: turtle soup, blinis with caviar, quail in pastry, an extravagant rum cake. The feast is positively sexual in its voluptuousness. The recent Italian film I am Love lavished almost as much attention on its food sequences as it did on the trou- bling machinations of a powerful Italian family. Luca Guadagnino, the film’s director, modelled the food on dishes served in the celebrated Milanese restaurant Cracco Peck. Pepperoni pizza was conspicuous by its absence.
Other films that make the top 10 for foodies include the fine Big Night (1996), the useless Chocolat (2000) and the excellent Tampopo (1985). Food becomes a metaphor for living. The camera relishes the sheen, the succulence and the colour of its chosen morsels. We are encouraged to leave the cinema salivating. To ponder only the celebration of food in cinema is, however, to take a shallow, superficial approach to the subject. Eating runs through cinema. It helps point out social divisions. It establishes mood. On occasion, it offers film-makers amusing opportunities to revolt the audience.
Consider one of the season’s most intriguing movies. Markus Schleinzer’s Michael concerns an emotionally retarded Austrian paedophile who keeps a young boy imprisoned in his basement. Within the opening 10 minutes we see the perpetrator cooking a meal for his captive. What is this colourless, dry meat that he’s frying into oblivion? Our first sight of the obscure, supernaturally unappetising dish confirms that we are about to spend 90 minutes in a supremely unhappy place. The dinner that follows – all icy silences and snapped orders – acts as a horrible perversion of the archetypal family meal. That parody was pushed further in an influential, if still under-appreciated, James Whale film from 1932. A year after making Frankenstein, the director offered audiences a magnificent comic horror entitled The Old Dark House. A group of travellers has ended