THE MENU l Searchlight Pictures

THE MENU is refined, precise, and deadly. It really is a complete picture of how back-of-house functions, especially in fine dining, in the restaurant world. The story is dark comedy and satirical, walking a fine line between the dramatic and realistic elements of the story. Mark Mylod (“Succession,” “Game Of Thrones”) directed the film with such sensitivity and skill. The writers, Seth Reiss (“Late Night With Seth Meyers,” Comedy Bang Bang) and Will Travers (“Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” “Succession”), come from a comedy background, so they understand that tightrope walk. Apparently, the idea for the film came from one of the writers visiting an exclusive restaurant on a similar island, and the classic “what if” came to him.

Here is the official synopsis: “A couple travels to a coastal island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the chef has prepared a lavish menu, with some shocking surprises.”

The performances are wonderful. There’s not a bad performance among the cast, but I will take the time to specifically cite some of my favorites: Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus, Hail, Caesar) as Chef Slowick is superb, this might be my favorite of all his performances, it hits right at the crux of his stern outer self and his inner torment, as is Janet McTeer (The King Is Alive, Tideland) as Lillian, Judith Light (“American Horror Stories,” “Shining Vale”), Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, The Northman) as Margot, John Leguizamo (John Wick, Land Of The Dead) as The Movie Star, Hong Chau (“Watchmen”) as Elsa, Christina Brucato (“The Walking Dead: World Beyond,” “Orange Is The New Black”) as Katherine, who’s brimming yet sparkling anger is wonderful to see, Aimee Carrero (The Last Witch Hunter, “The Americans”) as Felicity, and Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies, Mad Max: Fury Road) as Tyler.

The cast really gets the almost cult-like or military-style devotion that restaurant workers have for their chefs and the toll that it takes on them and what motivates them. What it also has is a depth of empathy for that motivation and sacrifice. It really brings home what all great chefs and good cooks really want. They love to share their food with people who genuinely appreciate it.

Art and THE MENU

Photo by Eric Zachanowich l Searchlight Pictures.

In our attempts to comprehend art, there is a division between people who are considered artists and people who are considered craftspeople. While contemplating THE MENU, I finally hit upon it. The crafts are the abilities that one must train in to execute art. Musicians, actors, singers, and dancers all train and/or rehearse. Painters, sculptors, cooks, and chefs learn through training and by perfecting their skills while making their art. Many artists view their work as a means of communication with their audience and what they are really doing is sharing themselves through their medium. Cooks and chefs are no different. I know quite a few cooks, chefs, and bakers, as I also report on the food industry, and the best ones I know work extremely hard and hold themselves to impossibly high standards. When they know that someone has enjoyed their food or they get to see someone enjoy it, you wouldn’t believe how their faces light up, and how genuinely happy it makes them.

It’s that important to them. It’s very similar to the devotion that I see in the best directors, writers, musicians, and actors. It is their life’s work. It’s their heart’s blood. It’s the work that compels them to spend six days a week standing over a hot stove in a cramped kitchen putting out hundreds of orders a night for very little pay and in a trade that likely will lead to anonymity. It’s the same as the actor who works in darkness for eight hours performing the same scene over and over again until they hit muscle failure. It’s the same as a guitar player who has grooves cut so deep in their fingers after a tour leg from playing their guitar that they resemble knife wounds. It’s the cook who spends six days a week in an unendurably hot kitchen with knife cuts on their fingers and burn marks all over their arms. Many of these artists sacrifice their lives for a craft and an art form that only a few will ever be successful in. But even if they are wildly successful, they still pay a heavy price for such devotion to their art.

The writers, the director, and the actors understand what that means and how those personal expectations of excellence can affect people’s lives. The film raises the stakes of this kind of fine dining experience to a level that reaches horror with elegance and humor but it never trivializes the food worker’s sacrifice. If anything, the people who get really skewered are the influencers who think they are experts but aren’t and critics who arrogantly can make or break people’s lives and dreams with one review and glory in their own power. If anything, you feel pity for the restaurant workers who, at least, have motivations that are (mostly) clean. They make the magic and they put their love of their craft into each dish and are savagely disappointed in themselves when they can’t measure up.

Visuals & Sound in THE MENU

Nicholas Hoult in THE MENU l Searchlight Pictures.

When Fiennes claps his hands it’s like thunder and it’s scary. Thrilling sound design work and acting work from Fiennes. Mark Mylod did such great work guiding the film and the performances with such fiendish accuracy, humanity, and comprehension of that sacrifice.

Gorgeous set design and cinematography and the plated food. After watching the film, which has a pitiless clinical brightness with edges drenched in almost sentient shadows, I wondered who the cinematographer could have been and I found that it is Peter Deming, cinematographer of Evil Dead II, Mulholland Drive, and multiple episodes of “Twin Peaks The Return”. The food in the film is styled by Chef Dominque Crenn, the first woman to receive three Michelin stars at her San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn. I have been assured that every plated dish was edible and they certainly looked fantastic and mouthwatering. The set looked authentic and similar to restaurants like Vespertine in Los Angeles. Hawthorne is meant to be a farm-to-table style restaurant on an island with a live-in staff that harvests sustainable produce grown on the island for that night’s sumptuous meal.

Colin Stetson composed the soundtrack and it works wonderfully with the film. I wish I could say more about it specifically, but I only saw the film once and the soundtrack isn’t streaming yet. Stetson also composed the soundtracks for Hereditary and Color Out Of Space.

The cinema of the restaurant industry is having a bit of a moment right now and this is a great addition to the canon. However, since all these disciplines are similar, THE MENU can also be taken as a metaphor for art in general and the dangers and pleasures of giving too much of yourself to the work.

THE MENU is a dark star of a satire with ornate dishes that are full of self-loathing and human frailty. It lovingly catalogs the artist’s attempt to share the contents of their soul with people who understand. I would write some seemingly pithy bon mot about how this film is a poisoned bonbon, but the food workers of THE MENU and its creators, and I will paraphrase Hannibal Lecter here, would never do that to the food.

THE MENU played as a part of Fantastic Fest, and will be released in theaters on November 18, 2022, from Searchlight Pictures.

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