Food on Film
By Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
An exploration of cinematic vittles through 10 tasty movies.
Culinary adjectives are often the best for describing films: bitter, sweet, bittersweet, delicious—no, delectable—scrumptious, an eye-candy of a movie with performances that practically sizzle on the screen! It’s no wonder the two go together like prosciutto and melon. In film, meals have become iconic symbols of camaraderie, societal status, tension, budding romance, and many a sexual innuendo (see: “I’ll have what she’s having” in When Harry Met Sally, the grapefruit in Girls Trip, the peach in Call Me By Your Name, etc.). Beyond narrative device, food, shot properly, can become cinematographic... eye-candy (ehem, excuse me), unlike the many poorly lit food photos you probably scroll past on Instagram every day. And the act of seeing a movie rarely feels so complete without some element of food—I’m talking popcorn and candy, of course, but if you stand firmly by Isabelle Huppert’s no snack rule, you’d probably still appreciate a post-film tête-à-tête over a meal. Perhaps right upstairs at the Commissary?
On August 8 at Metrograph, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be showing Alfonso Arau’s 1993 adaptation Like Water for Chocolate, a seminal entry in the food cinema canon. In honor of the screening, here are nine other great food flicks usually left off such lists—no, you can’t have what she’s having.
Like Water for Chocolate (Alfonso Arau, 1993)
In this adaptation of Laura Esquivel’s novel, poor, beautiful Tita isn’t allowed to marry, due to a long-held family tradition of the youngest daughters taking care of their mothers until death. So when the handsome Pedro comes along and the two form instant hot tamale chemistry, they must quell the flames, while Pedro marries Tita’s sister as a means to always be close to his actual true love. The frustrated Tita lets her passions take over in the kitchen instead, and in this magical surrealist drama, her emotions make their way into the ingredients. Tita more than whets the appetite when she makes one hell of an aphrodisiac with her quail in rose petal sauce dish (with a bouquet gifted from Pedro, no less!). Food becomes a fantastical way for characters to express what they cannot verbally, but the spoken metaphors here may even be better. When Pedro first lays his eyes on Tita, the gaze is so powerful that she says it’s “how raw dough must feel when it comes into contact with boiling oil.” Tita’s witty middle sister also comes up with the perfect line to describe the family’s faux marital situation: “You can’t exchange tacos for enchiladas.” No, you cannot.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (Chantal Akerman, 1975)
What makes the slow, routine cinema of Jeanne Dielman so mesmerizing? It is the film’s most enigmatic quality, one cracked by so few filmmakers. Though a difficult sell for the casual moviegoer, Chantal Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece remains entrancing during its nearly four-hour run although we spend the majority of the time observing Delphine Seyrig’s titular Jeanne batter meat and peel potatoes. In one scene, we see the middle-aged, widowed Jeanne prepare an entire meatloaf—something of an attention test even for those who regularly binge cooking shows on Netflix. Occurrences happen almost in real time, almost excruciatingly mundane, broken up by visits from random gentlemen, as Jeanne uses sex work to provide for herself and her teenage son—it is depicted as humdrum as her grocery list. The relationship between Jeanne and her son is not a heartwarming one. Their dinner scenes are unbearably awkward, especially around the halfway mark, when Jeanne’s rigid attention to detail and order starts to fall apart... her overcooked potatoes are more than just an innocuous culinary mistake.
Tampopo is probably the greatest film food to ever exist, though ramen may have still been a bit of a foreign concept to Western viewers upon its 1985 release, especially if it wasn’t packaged in a styrofoam cup.
Comrades: Almost a Love Story (Peter Chan, 1996)
Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love may be the more iconic Maggie Cheung food on film vehicle (“she dresses up like that to go out for noodles?”), but Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story is the one where she anxiously shoves sausage-and-pineapple hors d’oeuvres into her mouth. It is oddly so charming. The meet-cute of the will-they-or-won’t-they couple in this story (Cheung and Leon Lai) takes place at a Hong Kong McDonald’s, where Cheung’s Li Qiao works and dreams of climbing the entrepreneurship ladder. Meanwhile, Xiao Jun (Lai) delivers poultry to local restaurants on his bicycle. The two become flirtatious friends, even though he’s engaged to someone else, then they become something more than friends, and over the years, find it impossible to keep each other completely at bay. By the end, both end up in New York’s Chinatown—he working as a cook in a Chinese restaurant. The best part of Comrades is how Cheung endearingly turns her character into a nervous eater. In her lonely Manhattan apartment, she forlornly sucks on a chicken leg, oil all over her lips, decorum be damned.
35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, 2008)
There’s not much privacy in the Parisian housing projects where single-father Lionel (Alex Descas) and his daughter Jo (Mati Diop) live: cigarette smoke wafts in and out, and neighbors keep tabs on each other’s comings and goings. It is perhaps Denis’s quietest, most understated film, a sweet, melancholy, microcosmic look at a community bound to their homes and dreaming of what lies outside their walls. Food, though humbly prepared, represents hospitality among neighbors and relatives. Easy meals are prepared on the pan and shared while still hovering over the stove. But most touching and representative of the father-daughter bond at the center of the film is the rice cooker Lionel brings home. Jo, having just brought one home herself, hides that fact, and lets her father be the hero and provider of their supper. She gratefully sniffs the steam pumping from the cooker. It’s a moment as comforting and simple as, well, a bowl of rice.
Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985)
Tampopo is probably the greatest film food to ever exist, though ramen may have still been a bit of a foreign concept to Western viewers upon its 1985 release, especially if it wasn’t packaged in a styrofoam cup. So perhaps it was ridiculous to witness, in one of the first scenes, instructions on how to eat ramen. Not just how to pick it up with chopsticks and slurp but making a near-worshipping experience out of it: “Tap the pork. Nudge it lovingly with the tips of your chopsticks. Then, quietly apologize to the pork, saying, ‘Until we meet again.’” Though Tampopo is now widely recognized as a food film classic among arthouse crowds, director Juzo Itami remains an underrated food auteur, though his filmography is rife unusual eating scenes (inappropriate donut munching at funerals, panic-gulping eggs during a tax evasion bust, greedily shoveling crab meat, and squirting Kewpie mayo on shoplifters). But Tampopo is the exemplary showcase of Itami’s work, not just for the way he can capture the pools of pork fat oil in broth, but for the creative ways food brings people together. In this cleverly nicknamed “ramen western,” a widowed restaurant owner named Tampopo (played by Itami’s wife and muse Nobuko Miyamoto) learns how to perfect the dish. Meanwhile, a gangster and his mistress take “food porn” to the next level. Sure, there’s whipped cream (one of the more common sex ingredients), but also the erotic tickles of a dying prawn drenched in cognac, and the oral passing of egg yolk back and forth until it bursts and runs with gooey climax.
Daisies (Věra Chytilová, 1966)
When Daisies was first released in 1966, it was banned in Czechoslovakia due to “food wastage,” though the gluttonous liberation of its two female characters didn’t sit so well with the state or the censor-happy film industry either. Its climactic scene does involve the film’s two Maries (played by Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová) scarfing down cake and throwing it at each other, using dining furniture as shields. Before long, untouched food is trampled beneath their pumps during one joyously fuck-it-all scene in which the two put on a “fashion show,” stripped down to their slips and torn curtains and swinging from the chandelier. Yes, it’s a great movie to watch with your best gal pal (I can attest), but beyond just the female friendship genre, this is a feminist fantasy about anarchy and radical rebellion against social constructs. Chytilová wasn’t subtle about it either, and she put together a collage of unladylike cornucopia, as bluntly cut as the sausage the girls take a pair of scissors to. It sure pissed off a lot of people back in the day, and though the Maries are no role models, per se, there’s something so satisfying about watching them trick old men into taking them out to fancy restaurants.
Miami Blues (George Armitage, 1990)
Alec Baldwin is a violent criminal on the run in this neo-noir, but then there’s Jennifer Jason Leigh, the sweet young sex worker Susie, who falls for Baldwin’s Junior, thinking he’s the key to her future domestic bliss. Her presence not only offsets the machismo of the film, but elevates it with her wide-eyed dreams and southern twang. And I’ve long held the belief that JJL is the best chewer in cinema: the way she smacks her lips and makes conversation between bites is nearly spellbinding. When Susie first lunches with Junior, she orders salad with yogurt dressing, an order so fitting her personality, but when Junior follows suit, he spits it out, reprimands the waitress, and storms out of the restaurant. Susie continues to be swept up in Junior’s criminal mess with ignorance, and even prepares dinner for a policeman who’s onto Junior, thinking she’s just fulfilling her wifely hostess duties. By the end, Susie realizes her theoretical white picket fence has broken down and in one heartbreaking scene, she lets vinegar overpour into a pie she bakes for her man, to test if he would be honest with her for once. The result is as bitter as the recipe.
3 Women (Robert Altman, 1977)
On one hand, 3 Women is a nightmarish identity swap film about two roommates and coworkers who begin to consume each other: Millie (Shelley Duvall) and Pinky (Sissy Spacek). On the other hand, Altman’s film is basically the movie version of the ’70s Dinner Party Twitter account. Millie organizes recipes by cooking time and matches her yellow outfits to her dining set, to even the artificial hue of Cheez Wiz she buys for a dinner party. Up to a certain point, Millie is seen as the cooler one of the two—she bosses around Pinky, who at one point earnestly tells her, “You’re the most perfect person I’ve ever met”—but soon the illusion is shattered, revealing Millie just lacks self-awareness and can’t understand social cues, reeking of desperation to fit in. That realization becomes a deafening screech when, after an excited meal preparation of cheese crackers, chocolate pudding tarts, and pigs in a blanket, no one shows up to her party—just Pinky and her ruined gingham dress from a shrimp cocktail spill.
The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki, 2017)
The Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (the subject of a recent Metrograph retrospective) is the master of dry, deadpan humor, and there is a lot of that in his latest film, even one about a Syrian refugee. It’s a subject matter very much of this time, but never in a mocking or disingenuous manner, with a great first-time performance from Sherwan Haji, who plays the protagonist, Khaled. Along with Kaurismäki’s sense of humanity and humor, there are some other constants in this auteur’s work, including bare, bluish hues and restaurant locations. Here, Khaled finds under-the-table work at a restaurant named The Golden Pint, acquired by a recently rich, recently divorced, well-meaning Finnish man, and it is at this restaurant that Kaurismäki films the hilarious day-to-day of its unseasoned entrepreneur and workers. The funniest, and most unappetizing, of The Golden Pint’s dishes is the baseball-sized scoop of wasabi plunked onto slabs of sushi after the restaurant’s rebranding as a Japanese joint. Gross, but also kind of genius.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)
No one understands, or accepts, the romance between Emi (Brigitte Mira) and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), an elderly, widowed German woman and her Moroccan husband, more than 20 years her junior. It’s more than just whispers and glances from neighbors and friends in Fassbinder’s observation of romance in a racist, postwar Germany; the two lovers become pariahs, a burden too heavy to bear, even when they have each other. Their early courtship starts with polite invitations for drinks and meals, but food soon becomes fissure. Emi, who works as a cleaning lady, becomes an outcast from her coworkers during their gossip-heavy snack breaks, and her regular grocery store clerk refuses Ali’s patronage. During Ali and Emi’s post-wedding dinner, during which they uncharacteristically decide to splurge, it becomes immediately obvious that this is not their lifestyle. They order chateaubriand, but the uptight waiter sneers at them for not knowing how to order it: medium or rare. But the most devastating food bit is when Ali leaves Emi, after she tells him she can’t make him couscous and that he should get used to German food. So he runs back into the arms of an ex-lover, who makes him his coveted dish, and while he’s there, satisfies more than just that craving. •
Kristen Yoonsoo Kim is a New York–based film critic who runs a food on film Instagram, @meals.on.reels.