SPECIAL REPORT

These 5 Films Will Change the Way You Look at Food Forever

by Victor Chen
Opening image from Babette's Feast (1987)
18 Nov 2019

Not all good food is destined for the table.

Food can be the unexpected scene stealer in films, like the egg in In the Realm of The Senses (1976) and Burning Patience (1983), where it was used to evoke female sexuality and fragile strength in both the literal and figurative senses. This was not achieved, however, with the butter in The Last Tango in Paris (1972) or the apple pie in American Pie (1999), where they served as mere instruments – lubricants – for the act. In fact, in the second example, it was just there to elicit laughter from the gallery.

It doesn’t take an art film that deliver a more thoughtful and more exalted use of food to enrich a scene. In Chef (2014), the actor Jon Favreau, playing a father who is pursuing his passion while saving his marriage, prepares a three-cheese grilled sandwich with such honesty and expertise that the essence of fatherhood, of providing both emotional sustenance and corporal nourishment, is effectively conveyed in less than a minute.

Food is often used to establish historicity, particularly in period films, but a few clever ones subtly add details to what the audience already knows and expects. The banquet scene in The Age of Innocence (1993), for example, taught us more than just the courses and the table setting for a dinner in a wealthy household in late 1870s New York; it also educated us on class bias and the pecking order in high society. In The Last Emperor (1987), we learn about how the court food taster kept the Chinese emperor from being murdered with poison, and how his attending eunuchs assessed his diet by sniffing his excrement.

It’s not only appetizing food that is employed to catch the audience’s attention. Sometimes, it’s the opposite. Cannibalism is the riveting element in the plots of both Soylent Green (1973) and Sweeney Todd (2007); through dramatic irony, the fact that human flesh is the secret ingredient in Soylent Industries’ green wafers as well as in Mrs. Lovett’s pies is revealed to the audience ahead of the films characters, making up for great story-telling.

Nearly all films include dining scenes, but they are often incidental, that is, the food or the ritual of dining is not employed to reveal something about a character or to nudge the story along. In fact, food may be all over the film, but still has little to do with the theme. Case in point: No Reservations (2007). The lead characters didn’t have to be chefs. They could very well have been rival florists or dog groomers for their hostile-turned-amorous relationship to work.       

And it doesn’t always require an elaborate scene to drive home a point. All that Audrey Hepburn had to do in the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) was pull out a Danish from a paper bag with one gloved hand and sip coffee from a take-away cup to disclose the kind of person her character Holly Golightly was. 

The following five films demonstrate a strong casting of food, using it to advance the theme, identify the characters, mark the setting, and clarify the plot. As in any list, this is far from perfect or complete, but it does cover a wide space where food is firmly at the center.

  • CHOCOLAT (2000)
  • TAMPOPO (1985)
  • BABETTE'S FEAST (1987)
  • EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN (1994)
  • COMO AGUA PARA CHOCOLATE (1989)

Chocolat (2000)

Screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs based on the novel of the same title by Joanne Harris. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom.

Talking Points

Chocolatier Vianne Rocher settles into a conservative rural village in France with her young daughter Anouk and opens the chocolate shop, La Chocolaterie Maya. The timing could not have been worse as the village was just beginning to observe the 40 days of Lent.

Rocher’s personal life didn’t help matters either; she dresses elegantly, has an illegitimate child, runs a shop that offered frivolous pleasures, and lacks interest religious decorum. Just as she ruffles some of the villagers' feathers, she also formed bonds with outcasts like her: Josephine, a woman in an abusive marriage; Roux, a gypsy who lives on a riverboat; and an elderly eccentric lady, Armande, whose ties with her daughter-in-law and grandson are in peril.

It is easy to read chocolate here as a substitute for sin or illicit pleasure that ultimately brings ruin. All of Vianne’s friends in the village partake of her chocolate confections. The story ends with Vianne choosing to stay in the village and Roux returning to be with her and Anouk.  

Fast Forward To

Vianne hosts a party for Armande that features quail in chocolate sauce, and a dozen other chocolate-based confections: mousse and bonbons, chocolates with almonds, cherries and cream. The fall of Comte the Reynaud, the mayor of the village, is another riveting scene.

Reynaud enters La Chocolaterie Maya late one night, intending to destroy everything in it. As he is completing his mission, a small bit of chocolate lands on his lips and provokes him to have a taste. He then stuffs as much chocolate as he can into his mouth and ends up weeping as he realizes his downfall.

  • CHOCOLAT (2000)
  • TAMPOPO (1985)
  • BABETTE'S FEAST (1987)
  • EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN (1994)
  • COMO AGUA PARA CHOCOLATE (1989)

Tampopo (1985)

Screenplay by Juzo Itami, Directed by Juzo Itami

Talking Points

Two truck drivers turn a woman’s life around by helping her perfect a ramen recipe to save her failing shop. The mission introduces the audience to a handful of gourmands who do their part to help the woman, including the head of dumpster divers who rhapsodize about their finds like diners at a Michelin-starred restaurant.

The film also weaves in some characters from vignettes about food: a mother cooking a last meal for her family, an old lady obsessed with pinching food in a supermarket, a junior employee who surprises his seniors with his superior knowledge of haute cuisine, the students of a middle-class charm school in the midst of learning how to eat spaghetti properly.

Fast Forward To

Among the most memorable characters from a subplot are the lovers who experiment with food in their dalliance. Their scenes involving an egg yolk, an oyster and live shrimps are worthy highlights.

  • CHOCOLAT (2000)
  • TAMPOPO (1985)
  • BABETTE'S FEAST (1987)
  • EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN (1994)
  • COMO AGUA PARA CHOCOLATE (1989)

Babette's Feast (1987)

Screenplay by Gabriel Axel based on a short story by Isak Dinesen. Directed by Gabriel Axel.

Talking Points

A political refugee from Paris, Babette Hersant seeks refuge in the household of strict Protestant sisters Martine and Philippa, and their father in 19th century rural Denmark. The sisters take her in reluctantly and Babette starts work as an unpaid housekeeper.

A few years into her new life, Babette won the lottery in France and offers to cook an elaborate feast for the family and the villagers. She returns to Paris to gather all ingredients for the sumptuous and exotic dishes, and come back to Denmark to start cooking.

After the dinner, Babette admits to the sisters that she has spent all her winnings on the feast and will not be returning to Paris. It is revealed in the end that Babette is actually the former head chef at Café Anglais, a legendary establishment in Paris until it shut its doors in 1913.    

Fast Forward To

The process of creating a meal as a work of art is shown in great detail in this film, from the fastidious selection of ingredients to the rigorous preparation and procession of elaborately plated courses. Gourmands will recognize the turtle soup with sherry, the blinis with cream and caviar served with champagne, and the quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras. The elaborate dishes are paired with the perfect French wines, elevating the dinner scene into a proper guide on French gastronomy.

  • CHOCOLAT (2000)
  • TAMPOPO (1985)
  • BABETTE'S FEAST (1987)
  • EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN (1994)
  • COMO AGUA PARA CHOCOLATE (1989)

Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)

Screenplay by Ang Lee, James Schamus, and Hui Ling Wang. Directed by Ang Lee.

Talking Points

A semi-retired master chef prepares an elaborate family dinner every Sunday to lure his three daughters back to the family home, although it is clear that they have started to build their own individual lives away from it. The dinners become a venue for the sisters to talk about their lives, mostly obliquely, to test gauge the others’ approval or reproach.

Classic Chinese dishes were lovingly and meticulously filmed for this work as a counterpoint to the themes of breaking away from tradition, leaving the family home, and forsaking the East for the West. The title comes from the Confucian "Book of Rites" which asserts the acceptance of basic human desires as natural.

Fast Forward To

The opening scene is a visual extravaganza, with the father preparing the dishes for the first of many family dinners in the film. His expert skills with the cleaver, his handling of the various ingredients, and plating of the dishes – mostly shot in close-up – will put most cooking shows today to shame. This is also a broad commentary about the freshness of ingredients required by traditional Chinese dishes.

  • CHOCOLAT (2000)
  • TAMPOPO (1985)
  • BABETTE'S FEAST (1987)
  • EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN (1994)
  • COMO AGUA PARA CHOCOLATE (1989)

Como agua para chocolate (1989)

Screenplay by Laura Esquivel based on her novel of the same title. Directed by Alfonso Arau.

Talking Points

The protagonist Tita had to watch the love of her life end up with her elder sister Rosaura, as the family tradition decrees that Tita, the youngest of the three de la Garza daughters, must remain unmarried and look after their mother until the latter dies. Tita takes solace in the company of her elderly nanny, Nacha, who teaches her to prepare dishes from an old family recipe book.

But the dishes she prepares have intense magical effects that transmit whatever emotion she has while cooking. Based on Esquivel’s magical realism novel, the film incorporates scenes and plot twists that require suspension of disbelief.

Fast Forward To

As Tita prepares her sister’s wedding cake, her tears drop into the batter, which later causes convulsions of weeping and vomiting among guests. While having erotic thoughts about her former lover turned brother-in-law, Tita prepares a dish of quail in rose petals that has everyone who ate it cast their inhibitions – and some pieces of clothing – aside.

In the penultimate scene, Tita, reunited with her brother-in-law after the passing of her sister, consummates their pent-up desire. She then consumes the contents of a box of matches, which ignites memories of passion and causes them to be engulfed in flames.