Amuse-Bouche. Gastrique. Remouillage. Such terms are essential to the chefs, servers and critics of ultra-fine cuisine, but utterly alien to your average diner. The same is true for Margot, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is whisked on a night out by enthusiastic foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), to the mysterious and elite island restaurant Hawthorne in the new movie The Menu. There, the seemingly mismatched pair are joined by a charcuterie board of high-class patrons in order to partake in an elaborate and exclusive evening of elegantly prepared and extravagantly priced dining, masterminded by the legendary Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Needless to say, Slowik’s conceptual menu is a bit unusual.
It’s difficult to write about The Menu because, just like Slowik’s courses, it subverts audience’s expectations and serves up thrills around every corner. Director Mark Mylod – best known for his work on the hit HBO series Succession – uses the world of fine dining to examine class relations, entitlement and the fronts we put up to get through our everyday lives. The audience can’t help but feel like one of the patrons of the restaurant, watching both mesmerized and horrified as Slowik drives the tension of the meal to a fever pitch. Each new course, with its elegant presentation and horrific implication, elicits a gasp or a “no way.” The juxtaposition of the patrons’ increasing panic with Slowik’s immaculate passion is sharp enough to cut a filet mignon.
The acting of the main cast is a highlight. Fiennes effortlessly slips into the white jacket of Chef Slowik, who conducts his kitchen with the authority and adoration of a cult leader. Taylor-Joy shines as Margot, who sees through the elitist B.S. of Hawthorne immediately, much to the chagrin of her companion. The supporting cast rounds out the film nicely, organically populating the restaurant with a realistic selection of insufferable modern aristocrats, like Soren, Dave and Bryce, a trio of young corporate executives. Janet McTeer also stands out as Lillian, a food critic who makes absurd pronouncements about every course, feeding the culture of food mysticism the film showcases and demolishes.
The film both parodies and perfectly depicts the aesthetic of fine dining. Each new course features a close-up of the dish, along with a title card and list of ingredients, as one would see on an actual menu. The dishes themselves more closely resemble abstract art more than real food, something Margot points out to an oblivious Tyler who eagerly takes her portion and takes pictures despite Chef Slowik forbidding it. Hawthorne is appropriately elegant and menacing, with massive revolving doors set into the walls and a Nordic-style – whatever that means – smokehouse filled with bloody meat hooks.
By the end of The Menu I’d covered my mouth with disbelief. Food-based horror is itself a novel concept, but Mylod takes it to a direction that feels just as novel as Slowik’s disturbing creation. With just a pinch of heat, Mylod exposes the sins of the “eaters” and the “takers,” presenting fine dining not as an elegant bit of theater but a violent tragedy that asks us to reexamine our passions and indulgences.
Thumbnail image courtesy of Eric Zachanowich / Searchlight Pictures / 20th Century Studios.