By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
In “The Menu,” directed by Mark Mylod and starring Ralph Fiennes as chef Julian Slowak and Hong Chau as his loyal majordomo, Elsa, doom and discomfort are what’s for dinner. You won’t know for a while what’s going on, but you will know fairly quickly it’s, at the least, really weird.
“There’s a very specific turning point in the film where things start to get darker…up until that point, we’d all been having a nice, if odd-ish, dinner party,” said Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Margot, at a news conference, describing parts of the movie as “visceral.” I can attest to this, as just hearing the music during said conference gave me the willies, and answered my question as to whether “The Menu” is primarily horror, comedy, or social commentary. My vote goes to horror, with social commentary as a close second, and comedy as very low down the scale.
Director Mark Mylod admitted that during rehearsals, he asked the actors to watch Mexican surrealist Luis Buñuel’s film, “The Exterminating Angel.” In fact, you need look no more if you’re wondering what “The Menu” is really about. To set the scene, a collection of wealthy guests are delivered by boat to a lonely yet beautiful island in the Pacific Northwest. (Why are they picking on us? Let’s say the PNW has a reputation way beyond “eclectic.”) Presumably, everyone is in attendance for a very expensive and very extraordinary multiple course meal prepared by Slowak and his staff. Apart from that, there’s not supposed to be anything amiss, as guests come here all the time and the restaurant is world-renowned.
I really enjoyed the way the music in the film created a feeling of being at the symphony, and how each course was therefore like part of a complex musical composition. The menu of “The Menu” is announced on the screen and by Slowak, who also, we begin to notice, throws in a lot of sarcasm as we start to get an inkling he doesn’t really like his patrons. Though they have made him famous, it’s kind of like Nine Inch Nails, who very much wanted to bite the hand that fed them, in that dynamic where the artist wants to do what he or she does best, and only grudgingly accepts the increasing commercialization or notoriety that comes with it and that often ends up warping the very thing he or she first became famous for. (That’s it for anything like a spoiler.)
Take for instance, course two, which is “not bread” or “the bread you will not be eating,” says Slowak, after giving a long and mouth-watering description of how wonderful bread is, and explaining bread’s long history as the “food of the common man.” It’s funny, okay. It’s one of the funniest parts of the movie, but the first time you wonder, what the heck is happening here? The guests spend a lot of time asking whether this is real? Is this part of “the menu?” Is this theater? We’ve seen the moment in the preview where Margot watches that imposing door close—never a good sign—and as Elsa introduces the guests to the grounds, along the way dispensing some rules as rigid as her spine, the viewer, too, asks, “Is this dinner a bad weird or a good weird?”
“One of the things that drew us all to the project was that lovely mashup of tones,” Mylod said. “I signed on not really being able to picture what the final product would look like, and that was exciting to me because I was curious to see how it turned out,” said Chau who, along with others in the film, agreed that curiosity would move the audience along, too (never mind that bit about killing the cat). Chau was eager to give some backstory to Elsa, as the script was very spare, and revealed that she found her inspiration in the “funky” people of Portland, Oregon. After she developed Elsa’s story (to herself, we never find out much), she then asked for a costume that would help her get into character, which the costume designer provided. Chau did the rest. Elsa is creepy to the max. Again, at first, you want to laugh at her stubbornness and the way she denies the guests what they ask for (“No soup for you!”). She especially has quite a few run-ins with the “tech bros,” Bryce (Rob Yang), Soren (Arturo Castro), and Dave (Mark St. Cyr), who keep reminding Elsa and Slowak that they work for the owner of the restaurant.
Through their exchanges, we come to understand that Slowak is not the total master of his domain and begin to see more and more a power dynamic at play between boss and not-boss, and, eventually, “commoners” who eat the poor man’s bread and entitled rich people who don’t.
John Leguizamo, who plays a “washed up” action actor, discussed at the news conference how actors were encouraged to ad lib—as they never knew where the camera would be during filming—and also perfectly encapsulated the message of the film.
“I was trying to channel privilege because I don’t understand [what that is],” said Leguizamo. “I loved the political and social commentary of this film…It’s tapping into something that’s happening, especially in America…the disappearing middle class and these billionaires who think they can control our democracies…control us, and how they separate us, and keep us out, and go into [their] little special bubble. I think it’s a great commentary on the privilege that’s happening in America…”
The restaurant is the bubble. “Us” and “Them” are the rich and the not rich. As “The Menu” progresses, Slowak singles out Margot because she is an unexpected addition to the “party” (her date originally intended to bring his actual girlfriend and asked Margot at the last second). Slowak had everything carefully orchestrated in advance and is puzzling quite feverishly over what to do about Margot.
“In order to proceed, I have to know where to seat you. With us or with them,” Slowak tells her, and even though he seems to grow an affinity with her, you still can’t tell if he likes her, or anyone. But he definitely does not like rich, non-working class people.
The tension mounts so quickly in “The Menu”—almost from the beginning—that it’s difficult to talk around what happens and what it’s about. It’s stomach turning, it’s fascinating, it’s horrifying, it’s sad, it’s beautifully done—which describes the food as much as the movie. As the evening progresses, each guest is forced to have a reckoning with their “culpability.” What they are each culpable for has different permutations but all comes down to the same sense of privilege that has skewed otherwise delicious food and an otherwise beautiful world into something monstrous.
“By the end of the film, they’re figuratively, emotionally naked, and willing to ‘pay the check’…” said Mylod. I’ll just leave that on the table.
“The Menu” opens in theaters this weekend.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.