‘The Menu’ Serves Up Haute Cuisine Alongside Delicious Dark Comedy
Anyone walking into The Menu having seen its trailer already knows the type of movie they should expect. Mark Mylod’s feature film debut, with a screenplay by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, belongs to a long line of scandalous arthouse entertainments that run the gamut from Godardian brutalism (Weekend) to Buñuelian surrealism (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), from Peter Greenaway’s atavistic The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover to the more recent work of Ruben Östlund (The Square and Triangle of Sadness). They’re narrative features that are damning and nihilistic; ludicrous and imaginative; and when all is working together, these social satires, with their impossibly easy and overstaffed targets, are wickedly funny.
The Menu isn’t conceptually original, but the devilishness is in the details here (and the uniformly excellent work of its formidable cast). For its first third, Mylod introduces us to a dozen or so characters with economy and wit while also setting up the general structure of the plot: chapter headings based on the prix fixe offerings at the trend-setting Hawthorne restaurant. Three finance bros out for a lavish meal on the company dime; a washed up actor (John Leguizamo) and his beleaguered personal assistant (Aimee Carrero); an elderly couple (Reed Birney and Judith Light) on their 11th or 12th pilgrimage to the upscale establishment; an imposing food critic (Janet McTeer) and her editor (Paul Adelstein); and a young “foodie” superfan (Nicholas Hoult) and his last-minute replacement date (Anya Taylor-Joy): all are chartered by boat to a private island to partake in the gastronomically deconstructed delicacies of Hawthorne’s celebrity in residence, Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes).
The setting of the film is both opulent and isolating — the modern minimalist restaurant being the crown jewel of the island compound overseen by Slowik and his staff with military precision. (Elsa, his second in command, is a humorless sycophant brought to flinty precision by Hong Chau.) The sous chefs are in thrall to Slowik and his vision; his daily menu (each one prepared specifically for its clientele; no two ever the same) elicits rounds of intellectual jockeying between the guests — none more hysterical than the running commentary between the food critic and her companion, and Tyler, the Slowik stan brought to wide-eyed joy by Hoult who mansplains much of the evening to his date Margot, who’s bemused by the foibles of the rich and famous whilst the chef trots out dishes that are far more concept than sustenance. Taylor-Joy’s Margot is the audience surrogate: a novice through which we experience the bizarre particulars of haute cuisine rituals.
Mylod puts his cast through the paces here. It’s easy to believe that this crowd of sophisticated palettes would ignore the warning signs of the evening as it progresses from whimsical dishes to more nefarious motivations. Chef Slowik is nothing if not a performative chef artist, and the guests, who have been invited by the maestro himself (save for Margot, a last-minute replacement), have also seen all manner of culinary oddness. A raw scallop on a rock that’s supposed to manifest the ocean itself? Why, yes, genius. Gelled and emulsified and whipped accompaniments provided to the guests without the staple of bread?A deep and disturbing comment on the class struggles of the world, absolutely. When a sous chef with ambition and a modicum of talent is laid bare by Slowik in front of the diners, his act of self-violence is explained away as performance art, just part of the show of the master chef.
That’s when it gets crazy. And though the film doesn’t bring anything revelatory to the discussion surrounding art and commerce, rich and poor, haves and have-nots, it also doesn’t back away from its concept. It’s the blackest of dark comedies, with a central performance by Fiennes that can only be called, well, delicious, even if The Menu itself might leave you wanting just a little bit more.