There's something about filmmaking that lends itself very easily to cooking metaphors. Cooking and filmmaking are, after all, very similar. They're both the act of combining many different ingredients—some with chains of supply and production that stretch far beyond any one artist's ability to influence or even perceive—into a whole that should, if successful, feel entirely of a single piece. They're both the work of many pairs of hands that ends up being ascribed to a single mastermind—whose role, in reality, is often more in the realm of administration and logistics than artistry. And they both produce a range of results that can suit different palates at different times. An unassuming dish made with care and precision. A challenging, avant-garde experiment. A dazzling bit of cleverness. A junk orgy, full of fat and carbs, that leaves you entirely satisfied but with a looming stomachache.
Or, you know, maybe that's just nonsense. Shortly into The Menu, Mark Mylod's slick, enjoyable horror comedy, obnoxious foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) explains to his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) that cooking is superior to all other art forms because it deals with "the stuff of life itself". He's so passionate in describing how cooking gets at the very essence of what we—and the animals, plants, and minerals we consume—are that Margot, who until that point has been indulgent but reserved, visibly warms to both him and the experience he's trying to get her to share. But even in the moment, it's clear that Tyler's argument is, at best, a partial one. You could spin similar panegyrics to just about every other kind of human endeavor, and many movies already have (think, for example, of Virginia Madsen rhapsodizing about wine in Sideways). What's most interesting about The Menu—and what makes it, I think, rather different from the film its trailers seemed to promise—is how aware it seems of this fact, and how much it enjoys playing with it.
The Menu takes place over a single dinner service at Hawthorne, the ultra-exclusive, tasting-menu-only, no-substitutions domain of superstar chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). The restaurant sits on an island, accessible only by boat, where its staff catch fresh seafood, raise livestock, and maintain a smokehouse "in the Scandinavian tradition". A meal there runs well over a thousand dollars a head. The evening's guests—the dining room seats only twelve—include a trio of finance bros (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr) who expect special treatment because their boss is Hawthorne's chief investor, a washed-up film star (John Leguizamo) and his nearly-out-the-door assistant (Aimee Carrero), a renowned food critic (Janet McTeer) and her obsequious editor (Paul Adelstein), and a rich older couple (Judith Light and Reed Birney). And, of course, Tyler and Margot, the latter of whom ruffles some feathers when she arrives instead of Tyler's expected date. Alone among the evening's clientele, she is neither an aficionado of haute cuisine, nor particularly won over by the Hawthorne kitchen's military precision, by Slowik's speeches about the emotions and reactions each dish is meant to evoke, or by faux-clever touches such as a "breadless bread platter", a course consisting only of a few dabs of dipping sauces, with nothing to dip into them.
If you're seen The Menu's trailers, you know that the evening quickly takes a turn towards the homicidal. But this creates expectations of certain tropes—which the trailers, if anything, encourage—that are then frustrated. Margot is the film's lead, and she quickly captures Slowik's attention, both for pushing against the conventions of a fine dining experience (in one scene she scandalously suggests to Tyler that if he's not enjoying his dish, he should send it back), and for being a discordant note among the moneyed elites who usually make up his clientele. (To say more would spoil one of the film's most interesting revelations, but in Margot, The Menu does well by a group whose fictional depictions usually tend towards the sensational.) But if the audience takes Margot's centrality and no-nonsense attitude as an indication that she will soon develop into the film's Final Girl—perhaps along the lines of Samara Weaving in Ready or Not, her sleek satin sheath accumulating food stains as well as bloodstains—we instead find ourselves repeatedly frustrated. Like the other diners, Margot spends most of the movie reacting, and her one moment of taking control of the narrative comes very late in the story.
Other tropes similarly fail to materialize. Despite seeming to be on the verge of it on several occasions, at no point do the dinner's guests become an ingredient in its courses. And late in the movie, the male diners are informed that they're to be given a 45 second head start before the kitchen staff start chasing them down. But instead of being the moment in which the movie transforms from quietly sinister to a Most Dangerous Game-style orgy of violence, this turns out to be just another course. The men are quickly rounded up and returned to the dining room, and the last one to be discovered is given an extra dish to mark his accomplishment.
In other words, the essence of The Menu is the menu. Foodies and fancy chefs will often tell us that a meal is an act of storytelling, and in The Menu that is literalized, with the film's acts corresponding to the meal's courses. Mylod is best known for his work in television, and that speciality ends up suiting this story, whose brilliance is found not in gargantuan set-pieces but in carefully constructed, and often deceptively quiet, scenes. In a conversation that is cut just perfectly to highlight the obliviousness of a certain character, or a perfectly timed punchline. (It's not surprising to discover that the film's writers, Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, have spent most of their careers writing for comedy sketch shows, but it is impressive that they've managed to extend the ability to craft perfectly-honed bits into a longer, wider narrative.)
Like the title character in J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls, with each course Slowik turns his attention to another guest, or another member of his staff, using their humiliation or violent end to illustrate some prevailing sin in the restaurant industry—the relentless drive towards excellence that leaves lower-level kitchen employees burned out and dehumanized; the prevalence of sexual harassment—or in its customers—the rich couple who have been to Hawthorne eleven times merely as a status symbol, and can't name a single dish they've eaten there; the critic who is more in love with her own cleverness than the art she writes about. The diners, like the trapped interrogation subjects in Priestley's play, mount only a token resistance, seemingly aware that they have been assigned roles in Slowik's narrative that they have no choice but to play out. We keep expecting the pattern to be broken, the film to erupt into chaos, but instead the menu keeps progressing, every disruption from the guests anticipated and folded into the story Slowik—and the movie—are telling. Even the violent end Slowik is planning—which encompasses, he explains to Margot, not just the diners but himself and his staff as well—is merely another course, the crescendo of the narrative he's building.
In a delightful coincidence, 2022 has featured several excellent on-screen stories about cooking and its relationship with art and commerce. In Amazon's Julia we see the early days of the foodie movement, as Mastering the Art of French Cooking author Julia Child creates her iconic public television series The French Chef, bringing new ideas about food and eating to American families while essentially inventing the cooking show (once again, we see a parallel between cooking and filmmaking, as collaborative endeavors where many minds and ideas come together to make a whole). In Hulu's The Bear, we see foodie-ism at its fullest (and most toxic) flower, as escapees from abusive fine dining kitchens try to come up with a better way of running a restaurant. The two shows are very different in style and tone, but they ultimately grapple with very similar questions, ones that we return to again and again when we talk about cooking as something more than a way of getting calories in our bodies. The tension between hospitality and snobbery, between elevating a familiar dish and challenging customers to try something new, between cooking as an act of love, and the capitalistic apparatus that springs up around it—whether it's housewives feeling obliged to live up to Child's example of effortless domesticity, or hipsters descending on an obscure sandwich shop that has garnered a good review, making it inaccessible to the local clientele.
The Menu feels like a deranged extension of these conversations. Slowik has a litany of accusations against both his customers and himself. The money required to produce food with the precision and quality he demands means that he can only serve it to people he despises, who value the experience only to the extent that it burnishes their elite status. And the culture that has turned chefs into celebrities has given him permission to indulge in his worst excesses. To chase the adulation of critics by innovating merely for its own sake, and to abuse his staff because, just like the masters he serves, he's at the level where he's just allowed to get away with it.
These criticisms have led many people to class The Menu as yet another entry in that growing subgenre, the dark, violent comedy of the class war. But while this is obviously a correct assessment, it's also an incomplete one. It ignores the fact that, for all the skill and force with which it is made, Slowik's argument is incoherent. He has some obviously correct complaints about the state of the restaurant industry, but they sit side-by-side with utterly deranged ones—Leguizamo's character, he explains, has been marked for death because Slowik once wasted a precious free afternoon watching one of his terrible movies, and when the actor's assistant protests her inclusion among the doomed elite, he points out that she paid cash for an Ivy League education, and therefore "you die". A course intended to castigate Slowik for sexually harassing an underling (Christina Brucato) feels pointlessly self-indulgent, and for all that his staff seem genuinely caught up in the artistry of his murder-suicide plot, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this is less a communal work of art than it is a self-immolating cult.
(If there’s a critique to be made of The Menu, it's that it doesn’t do enough with Slowik's staff and their willingness to go along with his plan. Hong Chau is typically excellent as Hawthorne's maitre d', but in her final scene there's a hint that her devotion to Slowik has its roots in abuse, that could have been teased out more. And the rest of the staff don't get even that much development.)
My point here isn't "elaborately conceived mass murder is a poor vehicle for class critique". The issue isn't that Slowik is bad, but that he's making his point badly. His elaborate menu, the story that he is telling himself, his customers, and the audience, is a hodgepodge of elements that don't really come together. Which, to be clear, is something The Menu is entirely aware of, and wants us to notice. The menu that Slowik has constructed may be a story about how the artistry of fine dining has been corrupted by money, but the story that The Menu is telling is about an artist who has forgotten how to communicate with his audience. As Margot realizes, the key to defeating Slowik isn't fighting him or outsmarting him or appealing to his class solidarity. It's making a substantive critique of his art that he has to acknowledge as legitimate.
As a class comedy and a meditation about the state of fine dining, The Menu is delightful but slight. Other, better works have approached these issues in recent years with more insight and depth. But as a metaphor for how capitalism has left both artists and audiences hungry—the former deranged by a market that has alienated them from their work, the latter desperate for something with actual meat on its bones—it is nearly exhilarating. At the end of the film, Margot reminds Slowik that all she really wanted, when she came to his restaurant, was a good meal. At the risk of delving into one too many cooking metaphors, The Menu has more than delivered this.