Direction: Mark Mylod | Scenario: Seth Reiss, Will Tracy | cast: Anya Taylor-Joy (Margot), Ralph Fiennes (Chef Julian Slowik), Nicholas Hoult (Tyler), Hong Chau (Elsa), Janet McTeer (Lillian) and others | Playing time: 107 minutes | Year: 2022
Haute cuisine appeals to the imagination with its emulsions, gels, foams and plates that almost look like works of art. In addition to taste, gastronomy is also about experience. The tiny dishes against the often exorbitant price tag obscure the high art of cooking with snobbery. The menu provides a cynical glimpse, with a glance, into this world as majestic as it is ridiculous, where the evening’s guests await a very special event. The ultimate culinary experience. A gallows meal.
On an island not far from the coast is the very exclusive restaurant Hawthorne, where the famous chef Julian Slowik reigns. He rules his kitchen brigade with military discipline, but his love for the profession has clearly given way to something else. The food here comes straight from the land to your plate, and the high cost of over a thousand dollars means that the experience is only reserved for the wealthy. However, the evening’s guests have been specifically and carefully selected by the chef.
Among the ‘lucky ones’ are a smug food critic, a scrappy actor, a boring and filthy rich old couple, three rogue tech guys and the totally crazy foodie Tyler. All the guests represent a disgusting aspect of the arrogance that has made Chef Slowik a victim of his own success. Except for Margot, Tyler’s replacement date and only intruder. After a short tour of the cool island, which clearly serves as an amuse-bouche for the viewer, we settle in for the chef’s surprise menu, specially put together for tonight.
The film is divided into acts that run parallel to the evening’s menu. Each course is announced with a sensational hand clap, after which Chef Slowik introduces the dishes in a masterful manner. The accompanying images of the food seem to come from a smart cooking show and take the viewer into the gastronomic experience. Visual treats that actually make your mouth water. The guests’ teeth, meanwhile, are getting longer and longer because the menu is getting grittier with each dish. It is from the main course, where they have their sins served on specially printed tortillas, that the evening takes a sinister turn.
The minimalist look of the concrete bunker Hawthorne suddenly feels very cold and sterile as diners realize they are at the mercy of the chef. It is also precisely at this point that the film loses much of its ominous charm, similar to how the average horror film loses its suspense when the monster appears and facts take over from its own morbid imagination. By the way, it’s not the ‘monster’ this time, because Ralph Fiennes’ cold portrayal of the narcissistic boss is delightfully disturbing.
The menu is conceptually as surprising as the evening’s diabolical menu and the film is served with a good portion of social commentary. Through his characters, Mylod highlights the absurdity of the completely disappeared food culture and mocks the often elitist world in a sometimes very subtle way. Only Margot pierces through all the boasting and thus symbolizes the voice of the ‘normal’ people. As pretentious as the film accuses its guests of being, ironically, the film itself is a bit too.
The individual ingredients are to die for. From the highly original plot to the phenomenal cast, and from the highly atmospheric film to the increasingly edgy music, every element exudes class like a star restaurant. Putting everything together, however, the overall picture tends towards a kind of artistic absurdism that will not appeal to everyone. As with haute cuisine, the layout is beautiful and the experience great, but if you ponder the matter, it also turns into a lot of hot air.
The story largely takes place in the restaurant, and the individual set makes the film feel like a play at times. A dark and oppressive farce about the hard-working kitchen brigade versus the pampered elite. The film starts off very strong and it’s a shame that the refined subcutaneous tension builds halfway through for a more straightforward horror approach. Fortunately, the story simmers wonderfully unsettlingly to the boiling point in the final act, where guests are treated to Chef Slowik’s ultimate pièce de résistance. A dessert that, contrary to his revenge, is served piping hot. Good appetite.