Mark Mylod | 1hr 47min
Within the exclusive, isolated restaurant Hawthorne, Chef’s menu is the bible. He has gone to painstaking lengths to ensure the extravagant experience is delivered it exactly as intended, not as products to “eat” in the traditional sense, but rather as intellectual exercises to “Taste. Savour. Relish.” So too is this the manner in which his wealthy clientele appreciate his genius, abstracting ideas and deeper meanings from each course. To superfan Tyler, he is more than a cook – he is a storyteller with seemingly no limits to his genius. On this special night, the chef’s table he is attending along with his companion, Margot, and nine other lucky guests is promised to be an unforgettable experience, though the menu that Chef has prepared proves to his darkest and most avant-garde yet.
In The Menu’s gradual descent to gastronomical madness, Mark Mylod crafts a biting horror satire of up-class foodie culture full of all its recognisably niche archetypes. Restaurant regulars, obsessive devotees, and snooty critics sit among tech bros and celebrities whose immense wealth funds their side interest of fine dining. Each deservedly get their time in Chef’s spotlight as the targets of his derision and torture, and binding them all together is a conceited attitude towards food that in some way strips it of what Chef views as its truest pleasure – though what that might be is something he forgot a long time ago. Dedicating one’s life to cooking food for the top 1% who have lost touch with its purpose has drained the perfectionistic Chef and his burnt-out staff of all their passion, moulding them into a cult of sorts who live and work as a single, machinelike unit.
As such, Midsommar exerts a significant influence over The Menu’s characterisations, set pieces, and even its shimmering score composed by Colin Stetson, each coming together to paint a conflict between a hivemind community and their obnoxious visitors. Caught in the middle is a woman with sympathy for the former but allegiance to the latter, standing out in a way that is immediately noted by Chef’s right-hand lady and maitre d’, Elsa. Where Florence Pugh brought a traumatised melancholy to the equivalent role in Midsommar though, Anya Taylor-Joy is caustically sceptical of the entire experience, offloading exquisitely outlandish meals onto Tyler’s plate and hitting back at Chef’s criticisms of her etiquette.
Between these two men, Mylod strikes gold in his casting. Nicholas Hoult has built a respectable career on playing arrogant fools, and as the offensively pretentious Tyler he continues to dial up the pomposity here, waxing lyrical praises of Chef’s ability to “play with the raw materials of life itself.” Even as his fellow guests start losing fingers and their secrets spill out in humiliating food-themed reveals, he remains utterly engrossed by it all, right up until the point that he is singled out as potentially the worst of them all. Ralph Fiennes may outdo anyone else in this cast though, delivering his best performance since 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel as the soft-spoken, intensely focused Chef, putting us on edge at the start of each course with his unnervingly loud claps. His versatility is also on full display, commanding the screen with twisted monologues that are as equally menacing as his vaguely sinister threats.
“You will eat less than you desire and more than you deserve.”
Most of all though, Chef carries the miserable weight of a life utterly drained of passion and love, bled dry by an unjust service industry that dehumanises its workers for the exorbitant pleasure of its consumers. As a result, the delightfully macabre sense of humour that he possesses seeks to turn the tables on those whose capitalistic demands represent the ruin of his art, testing their acceptance of substandard meals such as the amusingly paradoxical “breadless bread plate.”
As the courses grow progressively darker, so too does the sky outside the restaurant’s giant glass wall, settling an ominous gloom over the mind games and murders that build towards the much-anticipated dessert. By turning these courses into their own chapters, Mylod instils a formal rigour in his storytelling reminiscent of the daily menus in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, associating each new development in the narrative with a specific dish marked by a drily sardonic description. These cutaways land with gentle elegance to the sound of a gong, lingering on dishes exquisitely designed by French chef Dominique Crenn, whose unique integration of poetry and cuisine is hauntingly manifested in Hawthorne’s highly conceptual yet divinely beautiful meals.
The punchline that comes with the final menu description makes for an amusingly morbid pay-off to all of this, though The Menu does not end without a satisfying recognition of what sparks one’s passion for food to begin. Through the intersection of Margot and Chef’s emotional arcs, a touching sweetness can be found within the bitterly pointed satire, underscoring the surprising similarities of their respective experiences, and anchoring us to reality by way of Margot’s refreshing pragmatism. As we collectively plunge into the depths of Chef’s resentful, twisted mind though, even her sharp wits may not be enough to save her fellow consumers and service industry workers from his menu, nor the disturbing consequences of capitalism’s arrogant, commercialised pretension.
The Menu is currently playing in theatres.