- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
[This story contains spoilers for The Menu.]
At the center of Searchlight Pictures’ The Menu is a question that transcends the film’s more obvious discussions about class and gender: What does it mean to be hungry?
Set in a Michelin-esque restaurant on a remote island where the staff also live and the diners pay $1,200 for one of 12 exclusive spots, the Mark Mylod-directed film cooks up both a comedic and horrific, literal and metaphorical study of what sustains us.
Hunger, then, has many flavors in this tale co-written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy. But arguably its most interesting was noted by star Judith Light, who told The Hollywood Reporter during the film’s premiere that what ultimately binds all of these characters — whether they are back or front of house — is a perpetual craving for something they can’t have.
Light described her character as a woman desperately clinging to her “self-esteem, her place in the world, her entitlement, her wealth and the kind of lifestyle she thinks she wants to have.” She’s hungry, the actress said, like everyone around her at the restaurant who has “wants, needs, hungers that they’re not able to solve in the ways that they have always been trying to solve them.”
They are then all, from the ego-driven Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) to his deadly driven staff and fearfully ravenous diners, starving. That subtext is what makes The Menu such a compelling exploration of class, workplace environments, power dynamics and, of course, food. But it’s also what allows it to be a subtle, rejection of age-old Hollywood tropes that use body size to reveal a moral failing.
“These people are all really malnourished,” Reiss tells THR. “They are all like metaphorically sickly thin.”
Reiss and Tracy spoke to THR about how their horror comedy explores not just who’s at the table but what’s on it and why through their fictional restaurant’s staff, diners and food.
Producer Betsy Koch shared that these characters are based on people that you, Will, saw at restaurants. In light of the genre and the themes, did you both want those diners to feel like actualized people or caricature versions of them?
SETH REISS When the tension heightens, I think they actually become less of a caricature as the night moves on. They start as “rich pricks,” but once it gets nuts in there, they kind of shed that and we see how the one thing they all have in common is that they’re all quite sad, empty people. They’re sad, empty people looking to be fed, but they will never satiate their hunger. That’s one thing they all have in common.
WILL TRACY There’s something about, especially in a restaurant like that where you do feel like you’re someone on a stage because it’s just that one seating a night, it’s always so many tables. Everyone’s kind of looking at every other table, so there’s a way in which almost unconsciously, you revert to type or the most stereotypical version of yourself. You’re the most presented version of yourself and — almost without being aware of it — act differently or act like a more heightened version of yourself because you’re aware of being seen and there’s a kind of a hushed, presentational atmosphere to the restaurant. We liked the idea of they might be the most extreme or presented versions of themselves earlier in the evening and then, as often happens when the situation becomes very tense or alarming or scary, the veil drops a bit. People become a bit more honest and a bit more real and the characters start to reveal more about themselves to each other that they were desperate not to reveal at the beginning of the evening.
You explore hunger in several ways in this film, including how all but one of the diners seem to have a relationship with food that is devoid of joy — almost like food or eating is either their enemy or an untouchable art. How did you think about that line between food appreciation and elitism and its relationship to their hunger?
REISS One of the ways we went about it is that Chef is not cooking bad food. It’s not Margot’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) taste, but Chef is cooking amazing food and he’s cooking food that can absolutely be enjoyed — even the breadless bread plate, which is him taking a poke at them. There’s no world in which all those sauces aren’t beautifully plated and don’t taste exquisite. But I think that none of the people can completely enjoy it and enjoy the food because they’re so caught up in what it means for them to be at the restaurant. Even someone like Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who knows everything about the food — that is even more important to him than actually enjoying the food.
TRACY That idea of the enemy, you’re right. The kitchen becomes therefore an enemy as well because in a restaurant like that, although you’re dressing up very nice, you’re listening to the presentation of each course and patiently awaiting the next course, you’re supposed to assume almost the position, not of a diner, but of a guest at a museum. But some part of your animal lizard brain still says, “I need my nutrients now and I need them to go inside of my body,” and you have to resist the urge to be saying that and resist the urge to shovel it in your mouth. So there is a little bit of this silent battle happening between respecting the artistry of the institution and “I need the molecules in my anatomy now.” Even in a perfectly nice meal where everything goes as planned, there is a kind of silent battle happening. I think we’re aware of that throughout the film, even before anything bad or crazy or violent or threatening happens. It feels as though there’s an uneasy kind of battle happening between hungry people who want their food and also people who have opinions about the food. Basically, that quiet non-conversation becomes a very loud conversation as the movie progresses, but it was already happening from the second they walked in. They were doing battle.
There are staff who literally die under the weight of their hunger. How did you want to explore their hunger similarly or differently in the back of house?
REISS In the back of the house, their hunger is to please Chef Slowik. He’s the only one that can fill them and make them full. I think that for [sous chef] Jeremy (Adam Aalderks) part of it is he’s aware that not only can he never live up to what his idea of greatness is, but he’ll never ultimately be able to impress Chef. Sadly, I think that is their hunger. In any sort of creative situation where people work and there’s always that person above them, giving them the checkmark, your hunger is to make them happy and to please them, for better or worse.
TRACY Seth and I have definitely felt that in creative situations with people who are a boss to us, but it’s there especially in the kitchen. A lot of kitchens in restaurants like this — especially this restaurant because it’s on an island and they live on that island — function the same way that a cult functions. They try to limit your access to the outside world and in doing so, they limit the sources of approbation and spiritual nourishment that you get from family, friends, cultural pursuits and communal pursuits. They replace all of that with the approbation and, at times, very harsh criticism of one single figure. I think Chef Slowik was smart enough, or you might say devious enough, to know that the best way to do that sometimes is with a gentleness or with a patina of love.
You never see him scream at his staff in the movie. You see him say to them, “I love you” and they say “I love you” back. He’s quite encouraging of their work. He even makes a big show of atoning for his past sins with the course where he allows a sous chef in his kitchen to tell them that he had sexually harassed her for quite a long time. I think he thinks at that moment, “Look at the work that I’ve done on myself. Look at how progressive I am by giving her that moment.” The whole evening is really about feeding that part of his ego. He thinks that he has moved beyond his ego to a sort of pure and transcendent and wonderful state of grace — that with the kitchen they’re all in there together as equals, but they’re not.
REISS In terms of the customers, one thing that binds them all together is their hunger will never be satiated. They’ll constantly be hungry, constantly be hungry, constantly be hungry. That’s why perhaps they need to go, but the one person whose hunger could be satiated is Margot’s. There’s a great but small exchange at the end where Chef asked her, “How hungry are you?” And she says, “I’m starved.” She needs something. She wants something, and I think she is able to accept that thing that Chef wants to give her and enjoy it. I also think in a certain sense, Chef is starved too, and Margot knows that, and she is going to feed his ego or whatever he needs to feel full, which is to provide this cheeseburger for her.
That moment feels really indicative of how an element of power dynamics work. To have power over Margot, she has to be hungry, and so when she’s not hungry, there’s less power over her. Is that why she only takes a bite and walks away? Has she gotten a taste of this experience and then pulled back because she’s “satiated” or just had enough and isn’t willing to let it control her?
TRACY We like keeping it open, that question. We like the ambiguity of do they actually make a connection at the end, these two people who work in the service industry. Do they meet as peers and as equals and share this kind of lovely and honest moment? Or has she simply found a way to, as she has probably done many times in her profession, appease and mollify and satisfy a particular kind of male ego? Does she think they are sharing a moment and he has simply realized, “Oh, she has given me a perfect poetic ending that I didn’t really have for my menu,” so he’s using her in a way? All these interpretations are kind of valid and interesting to us, so we prefer to just leave it a little bit unanswered.
REISS There’s something to be said about how these are two service industry employees who do enjoy or have enjoyed what they do. At the end of the movie, I think Margot enjoys providing this experience for the chef and Chef enjoys providing this experience for Margot. Both of them ultimately enjoy this perfect service industry customer relationship because when done well and right, it can be quite lovely. Everyone’s respectful of one another. So there’s something I think quite nice about that final moment whether or not she’s playing a game or whether he’s aware she’s playing a game. There is something in a nanosecond very lovely happening.
Media has historically linked the exploration of gluttony with body weight, but you didn’t choose to make bigger bodies the literal embodiment of these people’s hunger here. Did you intentionally stay away from that?
REISS These people are all really malnourished. They are all like metaphorically sickly thin, so that’s a cool observation.
TRACY Yeah, and I don’t think we ever would have considered portraying someone as being gluttonous in a kind of stereotypical or easy or cartoonish way. I think that wasn’t interesting to us and also, it probably would have seemed very easy to do that in a way that demonized somebody. That wouldn’t feel right to us at all. In some ways, I think it would detract from our real theme.
So the ending has two really interesting commentaries about food, the first involving cheeseburgers. You argue it’s sort of a universal meal, regardless of things like class or gender. Why the cheeseburger as Margot’s mechanism of escape?
TRACY I think we knew that you need whatever that thing is, you need that shot — that cheeseburger — to have at least a slight feeling, a groan of satisfaction, happening throughout the theater when it appears. And it just seemed as though at the time, our vegetarian friends notwithstanding — although we never hear if it’s actual meat in that burger — there wasn’t even much of a conversation. That’s actually the thing that we all want.
REISS I think what is also cool and maybe an overlooked touch is that he makes a fucking amazing burger within the confines of what is normal. He makes the best normal cheeseburger with as much pride and obsession as he’s made the other stuff, as he did the tacos. He cares about the quality of that cheeseburger as much as he cares about the quality of the dipping sauces. He didn’t just throw it together. He puts in a lot of passion — as much Chef Slowik fastball on that cheeseburger as he can.
In the next beat, you turn around and make the s’more the focus of Chef’s disdain. But they are both great, classic “American” foods. Why was the deconstructed s’more and not the cheeseburger everyone else’s demise?
TRACY In a way it is the opposite of what we were just saying about the cheeseburger. There’s nothing clever about the cheeseburger. It even says the title card, “Just a well-made cheeseburger.” The s’more, once Margot is gone, sees Chef sort of retreat back to a thing that runs through a few of the courses including the taco night course. He’s basically talking about a traditional American Taco Tuesday suburban ceremony. But the taco service looks nothing like what we would have on Taco Tuesday and the s’more looks nothing like what we would have in the s’more. He can’t help himself from doing that. By the way, I’m sure there are a lot of high-end restaurants all around the world that do some version of a s’more. I’m sure we’re not the first to land on that.
He’s trying to have that high-low dichotomy. I think he’s trying to do a very clever, intellectualized interpretation. But at the same time, and this is in large part due to Ralph Fiennes — who really collaborated with us quite a bit on that course — there is a kind of poetry to it. Even if it’s an elevated, deconstructed s’more. If you do it right, and if you have the kind of commitment and poetry of a Chef Slowik, the smell of the campfire and that taste — the sense memory of those three ingredients — there’s a feeling of childhood. There’s something that comes back to you. You’re transported in some way, and these people who are in some ways at the end are brought back to innocence and the beginning of childhood in the same instance. So there is something strangely beautiful about it, even though it is kind of up its own ass.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day