Anyone who’s been watching the recent NBC TV show Hannibal developed by Bryan Fuller, will have witnessed the significant impact that food has on the unfolding narrative. Doctor Lecter is, as the Thomas Harris novels have illustrated, a man not shy of cobbling the odd gourmet recipe together – usually from the harvested parts of his victims. Using lung, kidney, marrow and brain, Lecter flips and flambés his way through post-Michelin star repasts, making Hannibal as compelling as a Dexter/Masterchef: The Professionals spin-off.
Hans Laube’s Scentovison (a process developed whereby different smells that coincided with the action onscreen would be piped in under audience’s cinema seats – which made it’s grand opening and grand closing during Jack Cardiff’s 1960 film Scent of Mystery) has been the only real attempt at cashing in on cinemagoers’ other senses in an attempt at total immersion into the world of the screened film, but more recently, films have managed to use different foods and our associations with them in increasingly clever ways. Here are six great usages of foodstuffs in films.
1. Buffalo 66, 1998. Food: tripe
Poor Layla (Christina Ricci). Having been abducted from her dance class by the shy, sensitive and sociopathic Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo), and forced to pose as his wife for the duration of a super-awkward visit to Billy’s folks’, vegetarian Layla then has to suffer the indignation of eating cow’s intestine in order to sustain the subterfuge. Is Billy grateful? Like heck. “Isn’t that what you said was your favourite?” he asks. “Take a big… bigger bite.” Tripe is of course the perfect choice of meal for this odious family – the sports-obsessed Jan (Angelica Huston), the sleazily avuncular Jimmy (the late Ben Gazzara), and of course Billy himself, who goads and provokes Layla relentlessly. It also helps that Gallo deliberately chooses a lo-fi and muted colour palate for the film; the house has all the appeal of a tobacco-stained, badly composed snap from the 70s.
2. Jagten, 2012. Food: Christmas dinner
After having being accused of the most heinous of crimes by the entirety of the small Danish community in which he lives, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), having publicly confronted his best friend Theo at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, retires to his cheerless house, resigned to his fate and new reputation. Wracked with guilt, and to the chagrin of his wife, Theo confronts Lucas the next day, bringing leftovers from his family’s Christmas dinner and a bottle of wine. The meagre peace offering is reluctantly accepted by Lucas as the two sit in silence. As a movie, Jagten is as dispiriting as you might expect from a film that preys on our deepest fears and suspicions of evil-doers, but this scene itself is rather bittersweet; the friendship between the two begins to rekindle itself over what should be the most celebratory and warming of meals, awkwardly consumed in a shadowy, uninviting front room. There are no words to be said between the two, and a new, tentative alliance is formed. What could be more Christmassy than that?
3. Nikita, 1990. Food: birthday cake
This film features Tchéky Karyo in one of his finest roles as Bob, the mercurial agent assigned to watch over and train the young addict Nikita, plucked from the Parisian streets in an attempt to mould her into a government super-spy. Bob stoically oscillates between kindly paternal and harsh taskmaster, meting out reward and punishment with equal professionalism. In this scene, Bob has been given an ultimatum by higher authority: Nikita is a liability. She must learn discipline or she faces a covert-government-sanctioned execution. Director Luc Besson gives us little hints throughout the movie that Bob has great affection for his new apprentice, and this moment perfectly delineates where Bob’s personal feelings and professional conduct meet. The sentimental symbolism of the cake, complete with candles – what we must assume is a first for the street-dwelling junkie – is tempered by Bob’s straightforward delivery of the news, the cutting of the cake with his switchblade, and the confiscation of Nikita’s jacket and boots.
4. Jason and the Argonauts, 1963. Food: Mediterranean al-fresco cold platter
Having abused his gift of foresight to reveal the future to mankind, Zeus punishes Phineas, former king of Thrace, and decrees that he be tormented by winged harpies – fearsomely reimagined as sentient stone gargoyles by stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen – who steal his food and are generally unpleasant. Fortunately, Todd Armstrong’s Jason and his buff Argonauts are on hand to set a cunning trap for the harpies in exchange for information to the whereabouts of Colchis, the resting place of the legendary Golden Fleece. The pleasure of food that follows immense hunger or acute distress is always that much more keenly felt. As a result, this scene of Jason laying olives, fruits, breads and meats before an elderly man whom we have previously witnessed cursing his fate and sobbing at his own wretchedness, has a sense of revolutionary righteous justification about it – made all the more subversive by Jason’s complete disregard for the king of the god’s authority.
5. Conspiracy, 2001. Food: buffet lunch
In Frank Pierson’s HBO TV movie, the unfathomable horror of the fate of six million Jewish lives, decided by fifteen Nazi officials at a conference held at a suburban villa in Wannsee in 1942, is juxtaposed by the opulent splendour of the location and amenities that await the attendees. This includes a sumptuous and highly over-catered buffet of meats, cheeses, and fine wine. The gastronomic indulgence on display is at once mouth-watering and nauseating. The numerous staff that far outnumber the guests are nervous and skittish in their subservience; this is altogether a different kind of feast. These days, such culinary over-expense is synonymous with the kind of fawning over that accompanies corporate sponsors, foreign or royal dignitaries, that features as part of backstage riders for wealthy pop stars. This isn’t food as sustenance or recreation or art, but food as currency, as a signifier of status, power and privilege.
6. The Road, 2009. Food: non-perishables, canned goods
After trekking through the wilderness in the aftermath of an unexplained cataclysmic event, Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit McPhee) happen upon an underground bunker which someone has had the foresight to stock full of tinned peaches, beans and Cheetos. Forgetting for one moment its place in an already unremittingly bleak film, the beauty of this scene is in the pleasure of foodstuffs we hardly think of as gourmet or even vaguely appetising. Just think how hungry you’d have to be for your eyes to widen at the sight of a can of spam. In John Hillcoat’s marvellous film, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the presence of death is never far from the pair as they make their way to the coastline. If hunger doesn’t get them, marauding cannibals, murderers, the dark, infection, even Mother Nature herself surely will. But there’s the briefest of respites here. A Father has provided for his young, buried underground in the security of the bunker, hidden away from the harshest elements, the two share a meal by candlelight. Their delight in the simple offerings sells the desperate nature of their predicament, which in turn makes the bond between two that much more affecting.
Words: Ash Verjee