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Five of the Best: Food Moments in Film

This film was first made as a video list, available here:

Food is a huge part of every-day life. We (usually) interact with it every day, it gives us energy, pleasure, a link to our shared cultures and histories, and an excuse to interact with each other. We literally need it to survive! Considering how important it is, both culturally and socially, it’s maybe a little surprising how rarely it features prominently in film. Often films will have scenes in restaurants, cafes, diners, family dinner tables, but for the most part the food itself fades to the background in favour of narrative-driving dialogue or action. I suppose it makes sense, given that films are generally more concerned with the spectacular or out-of-the-ordinary, heroes and villains and drama, and food may seem relatively dull by comparison. You’re more likely to see a gunfight than a food fight on the big screen. Even so, food is clearly important to cinema, it even has its own signature staple! In film itself, food can be a powerful element of the story. It connects us to each other, to our families and friends, to society at large, to our own memories and cultural heritage. Food can be taboo, it can be allegorical, it can illustrate greed and corpulence or highlight poverty and inequality. It’s entirely sensory, incredibly flexible, and something that to some degree we all share. So, when a film uses food well, it’s memorable, interesting and begs further thought. 

That’s what this list is about. Five picks of food moments in film, showcasing a variety of ways food can be used on screen, and perhaps get an idea of why they are so effective and significant. Of course, these are just my own personal choices, and not a “top 5 best ever” or any kind of ranked or definitive list. I suppose you could say this list is just a taste…

Honourable mentions

Before the main list, I’ll quickly go through some honourable mentions. Recently, the film Pig had a scene which demonstrated the memory-unlocking power of food, how it can take you to a different place and time. I won’t go into specifics, it’s best to see it yourself. A lot of films have used food in a variety of interesting ways. From a first taste of meat for the vegetarian protagonist of Raw to cannibal gourmand Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs violating societal norms. Maybe the film is just revelling in the preparation of food itself, like in various films from Studio Ghibli, Jon Favreau’s Chef, or Juzo Itami’s Tampopo, famously referred to as the “first ramen western”. Maybe it’s where people eat that’s important, like Sal’s Pizza in Do the Right Thing. Or maybe there is an issue of scarcity, as in Soylent Green. There’s memorable food moments a-plenty on screen, from The Lighthouse to Pulp Fiction to the Godfather. And that’s just scratching the surface. I’m sure you can think of your own memorable food moments from films, things that have stuck with you for one reason or another. For now, I’m going to go into a little more detail on five of those moments which have stuck me. There will be spoilers to some degree in each of these five choices, so if you want to avoid that for any you may not have seen and want to go blind into, you can just skip to the next one on the list. In any case, here we go!

Ratatouille

food moments in film

My first moment is from Pixar’s 2007 Oscar winner Ratatouille. The film follows Remy, a rat who also happens to love cooking, and Alfredo, a man working in a low position in a restaurant in Paris. The two meet and discover Remy can control Alfredo like a marionette by sitting on his head and pulling his hair. The pair combine and Remy’s dishes become a sensation, although the chef’s identity is kept secret, with Remy hiding under Alfredo’s hat.  The moment I am choosing from the film plays on ideas of nostalgia beautifully. If you’ve seen Ratatouille before, you can probably already guess what I’m going to choose. Anton Ego, a snobby, pretentious and merciless food critic, arranges to visit the restaurant after hearing of its renewed success. Remy decides to make his own version of the dish Ratatouille for Anton, even though it is seen as a “peasant dish”, perhaps not the best choice for a pretentious critic. When Anton takes a bite though, he is transported back to his childhood, to the Ratatouille his own mother prepared for him, and devours the rest in a rapture. This moment is a testament to the sensory power of food, how its taste and smell can transport you to a completely different time and place, to rediscover something you thought you had lost.

Air Doll

For my second choice I’m going to talk about a film by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Really, I could make the whole video about food in his films, he uses it beautifully, and in a variety of ways, throughout his filmography. In his work you’ll often see families eating and building social bonds at the dinner table, but for my pick here, I’m going to go with something a little different. Air Doll (2009) is the story of an inflatable sex doll that comes to life and begins exploring its surroundings, meeting new people and trying to explore real connections. One small food-related detail is that Kore-eda chooses to show the sex doll character, Nozomi (Bae Doona), carrying a hand-bag shaped like an apple: artificial fruit for an artificial girl. But, the moment I’m choosing comes right at the end of the film. As she lies deflating and dying in a pile of trash, she imagines eating dinner at an identical restaurant to one we see her visit earlier in the film, where we had learned that she is physically unable to eat. In her dying dream though, she eats freely and happily. The lights darken and all the people she has met since coming to life sing her happy birthday, and bring out a candle-topped cake. She cries, and tries to blow out the candles, but fails, before cutting back to reality, with her lying discarded on a pile of rubbish. Nozomi’s relationship with food shows how she yearns to belong, but can’t, and highlights her status as an outsider to society, mostly forgotten.

Kim Ji-young, Born 1982

Our favourite foods can say a lot about us, and our relationships to others. You might favour sweets, indulging your inner child, or it might be your favourite is tied to an event, like Christmas dinner or birthday cake. There is a small moment concerning favoured foods in Korean film Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, which tells us a lot about the family dynamic. The film is concerned with titular character Kim Ji-young, a new mother in her 30s who stays at home while her husband works. Since the birth of their child, Ji-young has started acting strangely. From time to time, she will be seemingly taken over by another person’s spirit, such as her mother, or deceased grandmother, and speak as if she is that person rather than Ji-young, referring to herself in the third person and taking on personality quirks of whoever is “possessing” her at that time, like wanting to drink beer. Afterwards, Ji-young has no memory of it, and puts the lost time down to simply being tired following childbirth. Her husband Dae-hyun is naturally worried, thinking she may be experiencing postpartum depression, and asks her to visit a psychiatrist, although he doesn’t tell her she has been acting “possessed” from time to time. From here, the film jumps between important events of Ji-young’s past and the unfolding story of the present to flesh out Ji-young’s character, her influences, and how she came to be the woman she is today.

The moment I am choosing comes slightly later on in the film. Ji-young’s brother Ji-seok is delivering some food to her apartment and wants to get her something nice, so he calls their father to ask him what Ji-young’s favourite snack, who tells him that it’s red-bean bread. Ji-seok buys a bag full, and takes it to Ji-young’s apartment along with the rest of the food. But, once he gets there, he discovers that Ji-young doesn’t like red-bean bread. Red-bean bread was Ji-seok’s favourite, not hers. This small mis-remembered detail just drives home how their father favours his son over his daughter. It might seem harmless, just a forgetful father, but it’s an important and evocative detail, particularly when added to the to the themes of gender imbalance explored throughout the film. If our favourite things can say a lot about us, then so does a loved one getting those favourites wrong.

I, Daniel Blake

Even though a lot of emphasis is put on the taste of food, our own favourites, how it looks, the memories we have tied up in it, at its root food is all about sustenance. We need it to live, to keep going. Sometimes we get to revel in excess with food on film, but what about the other side, hunger and deprivation? With that in mind, the next moment is all to do with what happens when we can’t get enough, exemplified through Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake.

I, Daniel Blake is an excellently portrayed and scathing indictment of the UK benefits system and its labyrinthine bureaucracy. Main character Daniel Blake, a middle-aged joiner who has recently suffered a heart-attack and been declared unfit for work, struggles with the consequences of not being able to get the help he needs from the red-tape ridden and seemingly impenetrable welfare system. He meets Katie, a young single mother who is similarly struggling with the system, at the job centre, and the pair become friends. Again, if you’ve seen this film, you can probably already guess the moment I’m going to choose.

After being sanctioned by the job centre for being late and finding it harder and harder to afford the necessities, even skipping meals so that her children can eat, Katie visits a food bank in order to get enough food to feed her family. She is shown around by a volunteer, and the pair put items into bags for Katie to take home and chat pleasantly. Soon, Katie can’t contain her hunger any longer and opens a tin of beans, eating them cold before breaking down crying while being comforted by the volunteer and Daniel. After the cold staff and officious atmospheres of the benefits offices we see throughout the film, the food bank seems positively warm and helpful by comparison. This just makes an already shocking and visceral scene that much more potent; it seems to come out of nowhere given the comparatively relaxed atmosphere of the setting. Of course, this desperation has been building and building all along. This is a moment that highlights how stark, constricting and unrelenting poverty can be. 

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

The last three moments have all been a bit on the depressing side, so let’s try and celebrate the joyful and imaginative side of food to finish things off. For that, the choice seems quite simple: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. The film is a testament to the power of invention, an introduction to a world of pure imagination. Based on Roald Dahl’s novel, the film follows five children who each find a golden ticket in a bar of chocolate. That ticket grants them a tour of Willy Wonka’s mysterious chocolate factory, its door having previously been closed to the public for years. We meet Willy Wonka himself, played by Gene Wilder, as he conducts the tour for the children. We are treated to wonderful and elaborate sweet-based inventions, strange musical workers, and more chocolate than any child could ever want. The particular moment I’m choosing though, is one of many that highlights the pitfalls of greed and reckless impulsiveness. I know, I said we’d be avoiding depressing topics for this pick, but darkly comic is better than just plain dark!

The moment concerns maybe one of the best named characters in fiction, Augustus Gloop. A young, greedy German boy who is one of the golden ticket winners. In the Chocolate Room, while the other children and their parents turn their attention to exploring and enjoying what’s on offer, Augustus turns his attention to the enormous chocolate river running through the room. Overcome by his insatiable appetite, he lies on the ground and begins consuming as much of the river as he can, before falling in. His greed leads to him being sucked up into a pipe and wedged in, before shooting off to another part of the factory. Wonka sends some Oompa Loompas along with Gloop’s mother to retrieve him. Four of the five children end up being punished for succumbing to their own different temptations, in different ways, but this one always seemed the most memorable to me. It might be because of the setting, that it’s the first time we hear the Oompa Loompas sing, or just because Gloop always sticks in my mind because of his name anyway. In any case, it’s clear you can always have too much of a good thing, so it’s probably best to avoid falling into rushing chocolate rivers…

So those are my picks, a five-course meal of moments for you to savour. What food moments in film have stuck out to you? Let me know in the comments!

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