The Menu first published by Sight and Sound, December 2022
Review: “He’s not just a chef,” Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) says to his dinner date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), “he’s a storyteller.” Tyler is speaking of Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), a celebrated master chef to whose exclusive restaurant Hawthorne, located on an island of the same name, the couple has come by boat with a small number of other well-heeled diners for a special multi-course meal that is also supposed to be an experience and, as the fanatical gastronome Tyler suggests, a narrative. Slowik has closely researched all his guests, and tailor-made each item on his menu to be a provocation, a confrontation, and a lesson in life and death that will prick their consciences as much as tease their palates. Yet Margot, a last-minute replacement for Tyler’s ex-partner, is – as an unknown quantity – a spanner in the works, proving resistant to Slowik’s carefully conceived programme for the night. And so he quickly sets about getting to know who Margot really is and what her proper place might be at his table.
The Menu spans a single night’s dégustation that is also a revelation in miniature of its characters’ broader lives – their desires and disappointments, their vanities and vices. As the evening darkens, as the mood turns menacing, as there is a tense escalation in dread and as it becomes ever clearer that all these dishes are (metaphorically) being served cold, director Mark Mylod (TV’s Succession) certainly brings incisive observations of class entitlement, but his feature is also concerned with art itself: its conception and painstaking, often painful creation, its reception and criticism, its commodification and exploitation. Here the art operates at two levels: not only Slowik’s menu and its artful realisation by his loyal hostess Elsa (Hong Chau) and an enthusiastic ensemble of cooks and waiters, but also Mylod’s film itself. Both, after all, tell stories which all at once expose artist and audience to judgement, and whose mouth-watering surfaces and immaculate presentation conceal a mess of imperfection and immolation.
Slowik’s slow-cooked revenge against social inequality, bad taste, cruel critique, culinary pretension and even ‘fast food’ cinema is unsettling and accusatory. Like an expanded version of the élite dining scenes from Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) and Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness (2022), but also with an unexpectedly sentimental sprinkling of Brad Bird’s Ratatouille (2007), The Menu serves up a vicious story of humanity in microcosm, letting (almost) everyone get their just des(s)erts.
Synopsis: Tyler, his last-minute replacement date Margot and an élite group of actors, money men, food critics and wealthy diners attend an elaborate dégustation at the exclusive island restaurant Hawthorne – but chef Julian Slowik, his hostess Elsa and a team of loyal staff have more than just food on the menu.
strap: Mark Mylod’s dark satire serves up an artful platter of dégustation and disgust, class conflict and culinary revenge