Director: Mike Mylod (USA). Year of Release: 2022
Tyler and Margot are preparing for a night out at a posh restaurant. He’s all suited up. She’s wearing a dress and black combat boots. He’s irritated that she’s smoking – she needs to keep her palette clean so she can appreciate the gourmet food. How gourmet? Well, $1,250 a head for a maximum of 12 people dining on the chef’s private island.
As they wait for the boat to the island, we meet some of their fellow diners. It’s hard to tell which is most rich or most obnoxious. There’s a restaurant critique and her obsequious editor. After every pretentious sentence of meaningless word salad that she utters, he replies “that’s exactly what I was going to say”. There’s also a washed-up actor and a woman who keeps on trying to break up with him, but he doesn’t listen to a word that she says to him.
There’s also a trio of banker Bros, who are the only non-white guests, as if to show that while new money can be (relatively) colour blind, it doesn’t make you any less objectionable. The Bros are involved in a permanent dick swinging contest, where they take it in turns to behave so offensively that even they even annoy the other entitled guests. And there’s an older couple, regulars at the restaurant. For some reason, Margot stares knowingly at him throughout the meal.
The Menu is one of those films which is difficult to review without plot spoilers. And while it’s not as if anything too unexpected happens, The Menu is what it is because of its ability to reveal certain plot twists at the right time. So, I’ll just tiptoe around what happens, and make some allusions which will only really make sense once you’ve seen the film (don’t you just hate reviews that do that?)
The film is structured into several sections based on the different parts of a multi-course meal. Each course is introduced by one of the kitchen staff – usually, Slowik, the chef (played by Ralph Fiennes at his most sinister), but sometimes one of the others deputizes, for reasons which become obvious. These spoken introductions are packed with florid and meaningless language – something that the restaurant critic laps up.
I was put off from seeing The Menu for quite a while, expecting a repetition of Triangle of Sadness, a film which was on the right side but didn’t feel like it has had much to say. I have seen quite a few people get ridiculously excited with Triangle of Sadness, but for me, it contained very little dramatic tension and not much more of a message that “the rich are not very nice people”. Guess what? I pretty much knew already.
The trailer for The Menu promised more of the same, as does the first third of the film, which consists of overrich people eating pretentious meals (how about a bread dish without any bread because that’s what poor people eat?) and behaving as odiously as possible. The one counterweight is the rebellious Margot, who we soon realise isn’t supposed to be here – Tyler has just hired her after his original date blew him out.
So far, so humdrum. Yes, it’s poking fun at the rich, but merely portraying them on screen is indulging people who should be at worst ignored and at best subjected to serious harm. But then, someone steps up to introduce the next course, and suddenly we’re not in Kansas any more. As the film goes on, the rich diners realise that the chef is seeking revenge and that they are going to be lucky to survive the night.
All this means that there is a tension around The Menu which never disappears. We know that the chef holds the others in the palm of his hands, and that they are in grave danger. It also becomes increasingly clear that this is an effete pampered class which may have made its wealth by stealing from the poor, but is now unable to defend itself. At one stage the chef remarks how little effort any of them has made to defend themselves even when the danger was clear.
So, this is a film which believes that too much wealth is an obscenity, but is it a left wing film? I’m not so sure. I would guess that the film makers consider themselves to be on the Left, but I worry about a couple of things. Firstly, the chef acts like a proto-fascist. His argument against the rich is less that they exploit the poor, and more that they treat “service workers” like him for granted. He wants respect, and the share of the pie to which he feels he is entitled.
Secondly, the film does talk about class struggle, between those who give and those who take, and when the chef recognises that Margot doesn’t belong with the rich diners, he asks her to take a side. And yet the choice that he offers is of no consequence, as he has decided what will happen. The idea that working people have any autonomy or can decide their own fate is entirely absent – there’s is to do and/or die in the manner that he has assigned to them.
The Menu also has an underlying message that is slightly condescending. Early on, Tyler demotes that people who like visual art and music are just passengers – the real artists are the chefs who create things that we actually consume. Which means that when the film insinuates that burgers are preferable to haute cuisine, there’s the implication that high art is nothing that the poor should worry about. But we don’t want to be patronised – we want access to everything the rich have,
None of this makes The Menu a bad film. Even though we are told the ending well in advance, we stick with it, genuinely worried what will happen (and hoping that many of the characters face as grisly end as possible). At times, it is not as adventurous as it could be, but it’s better to appreciate what’s there than regret what was never part of this film.