measure. Watch as your awful child opens his jaws to reveal a mouthful of only partially masticated fish finger. Leave a plate of stew on a table for an hour and it turns from a steaming temptation into a congealed mass. Leave it a bit longer and it becomes a festering heap of putrefaction.
Think of the gnarled innards and greasy organs consumed by another horrific family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Even more effective is the rabbit that Catherine Deneuve never gets round to eating in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). As the poor girl goes steadily mad, the unfortunate beast, curled hopelessly on a plate, dries out, begins to stink and eventually accumulates a posse of flies. It’s not the subtlest metaphor for madness. But it certainly adds to the growing atmosphere of spiritual decay.
No study of cinematic eating would be complete without a consideration of the connections between food and sex. Terrible films such as 9½ Weeks (1986) attack the subject rather too literally. Considering the amount of grub that Mickey Rourke and Kim Bassinger scoff from one another’s bodies in the picture, the couple might as well have spent that titular period making out in the fridge. The famous scene in Tom Jones (1963), during which Albert Finney and Joyce Redman eye each other over a Georgian banquet, begins with subtle glances and ends with scenes that would (almost) shame the rutting Rourke/bassinger axis. What can Redman be up to when she slowly swallows an oyster and allows Finney to see the slime squirming within her mouth? A slightly more delicate variation on this trope occurs in another Polanski film. Recall Peter Firth, rich cad, feeding strawberries to impover-
ished Nastassja Kinski in Tess (1979). Sometimes a strawberry is more than just a strawberry.
Here’s the message. There is almost no purpose to which food cannot be put in cinema. When, in Goodfellas (1990), Ray Liotta explains that his mother made spaghetti sauce with ketchup, he clarifies that, unlike the majority of his gangster colleagues, he has no Italian blood. Quentin Tarantino’s musings on burgers in Pulp Fiction (1994) queasily reveal the extraordinary influence that fast-food culture has on American society. When eight truck-loads of baked beans descend on Ann-margret in Tommy (1975) it becomes clear that, well, the film must have been directed by Ken Russell.
Everyone eats. Food can be disgusting and delicious. What we eat and who we eat it with says a great deal about what sort of person we are. Onemay as well discuss the influence of breathing or walking in cinema.
We can, however, have a stab at isolating the perfect food movie. Everyone thinks of Withnail & I (1987) as a film about booze. But grub plays an extraordinary part in that Bruce Robinson comedy. The opening scene finds Paul Mcgann grimacing at a fried egg in a Camden Town cafe. Later, to emphasise the pals’ imprisonment in seediness, Paul brandishes a saveloy in the bath. A period of relative comfort finds them dining on an extravagantly delicious leg of lamb.
A chicken gets strangled and roasted. Pork pies and cake are drunkenly wolfed. The quality of the food mirrors the desperation (or otherwise) of the characters’ situation. Forget the Withnail & I drinking game. Call up the butcher and settle in for the ultimate dining diversion.