Mark Mylod’s The Menu is a deliciously savage class satire that belongs with The White Lotus, Triangle of Sadness and other recent releases about the lives of the ultra-rich. But it’s also more singular than that, and very much its own thing, partly due to its peculiarly food-centric premise. The entire film spans the length of a trip to Hawthorne, an exclusive restaurant helmed by chef Julian Slowik, played by Ralph Fiennes. Hawthorne charges over a thousand dollars per head, only accepts twelve diners at a time, is located on an island off the American coast, and can only be accessed by private boat. We experience this unique night at Hawthorne from the perspective of two particular guests, Tyler, a food snob played by Nicholas Hoult, and Margot, his last minute date, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, but there is an impressive ensemble cast here, including John Leguizamo as George Diaz, a Hollywood actor who has passed his prime, Janet McTeer as Lillian Bloom, a renowned food critic who helped make Hawthorne iconic, and Judith Light as Anne Liebbrandt, a regular Hawthorne customer.
Right from the start, it’s clear there’s something off about Hawthorne. Hong Chau arguably steals the show as Elsa, the maître d’ who greets the diners when they arrive on the island, and gives them a tour of its vistas and facilities. The way Elsa describes it, the cooking staff are akin to a cult, guided by the vision of Julian, who they are only permitted to refer to as Chef. As the film proceeds, Julian gradually reveals that the staff are closer to a suicide cult, at least for this particular iteration of his famous menu, which always involves a closing dish that throws the concept of the entire meal into focus. Tonight, he promises, the guests will be “ingredients in a degustation concept, figuratively speaking.” This meal can only work, can only be meaningful, if it ends with everyone at Hawthorne dying, staff and customers alike.
Before we arrive at that point, Mylod draws on the lushness of recent science fiction, especially Alex Garland’s return to the natural world as a source of science fiction in and of itself. Julian informs the guests that they will be eating “fat, salt, sugar, bacteria, fungi…and at times entire ecosystems,” turning the meal into a mere moment of mediation within the broader ecosystem of the island where the restaurant is situated. Likewise, Julian instructs his customers to avoid eating, and instead focus on taste, which for him involves opening oneself up to the flavour palette and mouthfeel of the entire cosmos. Tasting becomes a kind of mindfulness – “accept, accept all of it” – an experience that is ephemeral as the vagaries of the natural world, leading Julian to forbid photographs of his dishes, since to preserve and reduce them to a single moment is to extract them from the ecology that gives them meaning.
Tasting also becomes a way of allowing the natural world to pass through you, leading Mylod to shoot the natural world as if it’s edible, but to also shoot individual dishes as fully-formed topographies. The establishing-shots of the island opt for unusual canted and close-up perspectives, more common to food photography, while Julian’s first course is called “The Island”, and consists of plants from the island draped over rock miniatures of the island, leading McTeer’s food critic to observe that “we’re eating the ocean.” Less a discrete menu than a “biome of culinary ideals,” this tasting experience turns the body into a “nanosecond” interface in the “timeless” flow of nature, emphasizing the uncanny richness of the biosphere in a similar manner to Garland’s films. At times, this sense of cosmic digestion, both sublime and abject at the same time, reminded me of Peter Greenaway, and specifically of The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and His Lover, especially against the film’s Nymanesque string flourishes.
As compelling as it is, however, this fixation on denaturalizing nature is merely the entrée to the film’s broader preoccupations with genius and class. Over the last few years, there has been a stark shift in what the public tolerates from powerful men in positions of cultural or political authority. Filmmakers have responded with meditations on where we might still tolerate monstrous genius, or even whether genius is always inherently monstrous. As The Menu imagines it, chefs are one of the few figures who can wholeheartedly embrace the antisocial baggage of genius, partly because, as Tyler explains, “they play with the raw materials of life itself.” At times, Julian plays like the last great artist, athlete and auteur, much as this final menu is his crowning testament to his own genius, and to the very notion of genius itself. He signals this plan with the third course, “Memory,” which he starts with an anecdote about the childhood traumas that cemented his genius, and provided it with its propulsion.
Yet this also turns out to be the mere prelude to courses that dramatize the monstrosity of genius in even more vivid forms. In two of these courses, a person commits suicide because they can’t achieve or fathom Julian’s genius. In the first of these, titled “The Mess,” Julian invites a younger chef to stand on a white sheet in front of the guests. He reflects that this chef aspires to greatness, and has given up everything for greatness, but will never truly achieve it – and that, even if he did achieve it, his greatness would never bring him happiness. The chef promptly shoots himself in the face, is wrapped in the sheet, and dragged away. In the second course, an impromptu “demonstration”, Julian invites Tyler into the kitchen, congratulates him on his discernment, encourages him to cook a meal, takes one taste and tells him that “you are why the mystery has been drained from all art – can you see that now?” Finally, he whispers a criticism so excoriating, so inexorable in its insistence that Tyler will never achieve genius, that Tyler leaves without speaking a word, and hangs himself outside.
As part of the menu, then, both a guest and a chef commit suicide as a sublime tribute to genius. This isn’t enough for Julian, though, who also punishes misplaced genius. Later in the night, he explains why each of the customers was chosen to be part of this final menu, like a culinary update of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. While many of the guests have committed horrible crimes, the single misdeed of George, the actor played by Leguizamo, is that he appeared in a bad film that ruined Julian’s day off a decade ago. When George questions whether his punishment fits the crime, Julian suggests that he is the most culpable guest of the lot, since he is an “artist who has lost his purpose.” If there is one thing worse than not having genius in the first place, it is betraying the genius that you do have – and we soon learn that killing everyone, and himself, is Julian’s way of not betraying his own.
This brings us to the film’s thesis about genius – that is might be antisocial, and even self-destructive, but that once unleashed, its power can still be genuinely disruptive. Over the night, we learn that Julian has decided to excoriate all his patrons, sponsors and investors, and the financial class they represent, precisely because he had to depend on them for his genius to flourish. Starting with a ritual execution of his angel investor, he performs class terrorism, turning the restaurant into hijacking, with chefs stationed at the doors, and no cell service, so that guests can’t make an emergency call. As his menu proceeds, he apotheosises his genius as chef, but also self-identifies more as a service provider, still needing the approval of his elite clientele even as he approvingly quotes Martin Luther King Jr’s insistence that “freedom is not voluntarily given by the oppressor, but must be demanded by the oppressed.”
The Menu is thus ambivalent about what a service worker revolution might look and feel like. Even as an endpoint of human genius, Julian is unable to tear himself away from the need to win the approval of his oppressors, much as he can’t formulate a final menu that doesn’t also involve killing himself and all his employees alongside their guests. These tensions crystallise around his relationship with Margot, a last-minute substitution for Tyler’s wife, who was originally on the guest list. Right away, Julian recognizes that Margot isn’t upper class – “I know a fellow service industry worker when I see one” – and encourages her to join his team, so she can at least die with the chefs. She spends most of the second act hesitating, but the tipping-point comes when she learns that Tyler knew they were all going to die, due to some earlier correspondence with Julian, but brought her anyway, since he needed a partner. Still, Margot, whose real name is Erin, never fully identifies with Julian either, and is in fact the only guest who escapes, by targeting his genius as the driving force behind the menu as a whole.
This occurs in the final set piece of the film, when Margot blithely informs Julian that she’s bored, hungry, and hasn’t experienced a single moment of genuine pleasure during the meal. Having glimpsed a photograph of him working in a hamburger joint after surreptitiously breaking into his apartment, she challenges him to create a truly enjoyable cheeseburger. He complies, she takes a single bite, and then asks if she can have it to go, at which point he courteously lets her leave. The cheeseburger becomes a sublime image here, if not of class reconciliation, then at least of a class negotiation that doesn’t have to end in the self-immolation of service workers. By embracing the demotic pleasure of eating, and transforming fine dining back into fast food, Margot momentarily restores Julian’s original pleasure in providing good food to common people, before he turns on the remaining guests, and transforms them into human smores, drenching them in chocolate and marshmallow, and telling them “you are the ruin of my art and life,” before setting them, and the restaurant, alight. As Margot watches the fire from the boat, she takes the paper menu that came with her cheeseburger, and unceremoniously uses it to wipe her face. And The Menu ends on that note, despairing, perhaps, of the possibility for a full-scale revolt of service industry workers, but confident in the power of common pleasures to provide fleeting glimpses of relief and joy, of which the movie itself is one, since even its darkest dishes are unspeakably delicious.