Tasting Menu: Film Review

Deliberately insubstantial, sometimes savory, sometimes tasteless and ultimately dissatisfying, Tasting Menu is the filmic equivalent of its title.

The Spain/Ireland co-production plays out over a single night in a three-star Michelin restaurant.

Taking place during the final evening of a world-famous Catalan restaurant before it closes forever (read: Ferran Adria’s El Bulli), Roger Gual’s third feature, following the marvelous, co-directed Smoking Room and the less marvelous Remake, interweaves several storylines and inevitably leaves us wanting more of some of them, less of some and none at all of others. Presales have been brisk for a project that has been designed with a broad audience base in mind.

Initially uptight and a little pretentious, Menu takes a long time getting its characters onto the table, with a perhaps disproportionate number of Spaniards and Irish, dictated by production considerations, present on the restaurant’s final night. They include insecure doctor Marc (Jan Cornet, most familiar to non-Spaniards for Almodovar's The Skin I Live In) and beautiful, best-selling writer Rachel (Claudia Bassols), separated but meeting again for the meal of a lifetime; the mourning Countess D'Arcy (Fionnula Flanagan); the mysterious Walter Reilly (Stephen Rea), with whom the maitre d’ Max (Spain-based Canadian Andrew Tarbet) becomes increasingly obsessed as the evening wears on; and Isao Kamiyama (Togo Igawa) and Yoshio Takamura (Akihiko Serikawa), potential buyers of the restaurant, accompanied by gauche, motor-mouthed Mina (Marta Torné, the director’s real-life partner).

The first hour strives a little too hard for witty chic, and though it hits the mark only occasionally – the comic timing sometimes runs with less than quartz precision -- there is pleasure in watching the tropes of farce being played out in such hushed surroundings, with notes and gifts being passed across tables and reaching the wrong person.

After an hour, they all learn that a boat is sinking nearby and rush out to help, allowing the script to make its thudding metaphorical point that sipping cocktails when someone’s drowning is simply not good form. The food, too, is milked for its symbolism. Over the last couple of reels the film shakes off its self-conscious inhibitions and displays some healthy unruliness, and just as we're warming to a group of characters whose indulgences have been not only culinary but emotional, it's all over.

Given that the characters are mostly just sketches and that the script doesn’t seem sure about whether to laugh at them or feel for them, the performances are fine. Flanagan and Rea take their time and ham it up deliciously, despite looking a little lost amongst all the frenzied activity: The most haunting image of the entire film, indeed, shows Reilly sitting alone on a railway station platform as dawn comes up.

The film is a food fetishist’s delight, with close-ups of hands lovingly chopping and shaping: but the affectation of it all is neatly exposed later as, after the desserts fail to arrive, head chef Mar (Vicenta N'Dongo) ask her team, “Can you make something out of sea water?” Menu's script could have done with a little more such bite.

Emili Guirao’s photography is richly textured, approaching both dim interiors and sunlit exteriors with equal care. Stephen Mckeon's score is pleasantly melodic, but sometimes seems an odd throwback to the '60s, when la-la’s from a female chorus and lush strings signaled sophistication. The film signs off with The Divine Comedy’s wonderful Perfect Love Song, whose three minutes of elegance and wit the film itself has mostly been unable to match. Much of it was shot not in Catalunya, where it is set, but in Ireland. Languages spoken are basically Catalan, Spanish and English.

Venue: Pequeno Cine Estudio, Madrid
Production companies: Zentropa Spain, Subotica
Cast: Jan Cornet, Claudia Bassols, Stephen Rea, Fionnula Flanagan, Timothy Gibbs, Marta Torne, Vicenta N'Dongo, Andrew Tarbet, Andrea Ros, Togo Igawa, Andrés Herrera, Ivan Morales, Akihiko Serikawa
Director: Roger Gual
Screenwriter: Roger Gual, Javier Calvo
Producers: David Matamoros, Tristan O. Lynch, Aoife O'Sullivan
Executive producers: Peter Aalbaek Jensen, Peter Garde
Director of photography: Emili Guirao
Production designer: Stephan Carpinelli
Music: Stephen Mckeon
Costume designer: Coro Mateo
Editor: Alberto de Toro
No rating, 84 minutes