If you've ever been out for a meal and posted a picture of it to your Insta-story with the caption "#foodie" in the italic serif font, told a friend that you can "really taste the blackberry and caramel notes in this latte" or paid $700 per head (plus 13.5% gratuity) at a Heston Blumenthal restaurant because "it's an experience!", you may well be given cause to squirm in your seat (for more reasons than one) in The Menu, Mark Mylod's brilliant, pitch black horror satire. It's not only a brutal skewering of pretentious foodie culture, but also sometimes a damningly cynical comment on what we demand of artists of all kinds, and the way in which we consume their art. Intriguing, shocking, violent and very funny (often simultaneously), The Menu is easily one of my favourite films of the year.
It's a well-worn truth regarding the approach to new films, but of particular importance with this one is that you see it knowing as little about it as possible (don't fret if you've seen the trailer, it's a complete tonal misdirect). Chef Slowik (an intimidating yet inexplicably sympathetic Ralph Fiennes) runs an exclusive fine-dining restaurant, Hawthorne, situated on an island, at which a reservation is only obtainable by the most elite members of society (or, the ones able to fork out the $1,250 price tag). Outspoken foodie Tyler (an expertly irritating and relatable Nicholas Hoult — we've all met a Tyler) brings his reluctant date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) along for a culinary experience of a lifetime.
Other members of this select group include food critic Lillian (a highfalutin Janet McTeer, operating at peak, patronising cringe) and her obsequious editor Ted (Paul Adelstein), an increasingly irrelevant movie star (John Leguizamo) and a pair of regulars (Reed Birney and Judith Light) at which one of whom is directed the best line of the film, but I won't spoil it here — so you can know it when it happens, it's from the maître d', Elsa (the exquisitely enigmatic Hong Chau). As Chef Slowik and his servile army of sous chefs deliver each course, it becomes increasingly clear that this dining experience will be far from fine.
The Menu is a perfect candidate for an entry-level horror film. It's intriguing more than it is tense, alarming rather than scary, and evokes a feeling of curiosity (or even confusion) rather than dread. While its analogy is far from subtle, there's enough nuance in the storytelling for you to have a different takeaway from the person sitting next to you. The black humour is perfectly calibrated throughout, never quippy just for the sake of relieving tension, but always intentionally employed to soften the canvas on which the art is drawn. It is completely self-aware, winking at you and nudging you playfully as often as it tries to shock you. That's not to say some of the courses aren't harrowing — they are — but the jarring developments are often so over the top that they jolt you out of their reality and cause you to consider their larger meaning. It becomes a great deal of fun trying to decipher the significance of each new twist and turn.
Colin Stetson's score is a masterful accompaniment. Continuing his stellar work from Hereditary, he creates a delicious sound-world that cleverly hints at uptight classical cliches, blended with a minimalism that echoes the work of Nico Muhly and Steve Reich, all the while interweaving his own brand of woodwind-led electronic despair. It's a real pleasure to listen to.
The look and feel of the film is all a continuation of its awareness of its own pretentiousness. Peter Deming's cinematography is hypnotising and perfectly captures the food design from renowned chef Dominique Crenn — every dish looks like it knows it's supposed to be impressive and almost dares you to acknowledge it's actually cold and lifeless. But, when you've paid $1,250 and you notice the emulsion is split, who's the fool? The one who split the emulsion, or the one who paid $1,250 for it?
I expect many varied and interesting discussions will result from people seeing and dissecting this film. Mileage will vary regarding the final scene depending on the viewer's willingness to accept the film's obsession with following its own rules. I've seen the ending described online as a twist, but I fervently disagree. Early on, Chef Slowik says "the menu only makes sense if you eat." He might as well have been talking about the film (perhaps that's an additional wink from writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy). My recommendation is to watch The Menu and to take it as seriously as it takes itself, which is to say, not seriously at all. Bon appétit.
The Menu is in cinemas now.