A key sequence in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Couscous (2007) features a large Middle Eastern family tucking into a dinner of couscous. Hands of varying proportions scramble across the table, messily pinching morsels from serving plates flecked with oil and coloured spices. There are numerous close-ups of each person putting food into their mouth, chewing and swallowing; viewers are guests within this scenario, enveloped in this celebratory moment of pleasure, participating in a very ritualistic and familial gathering.
After this sequence, the narrative begins to focus more on the preparation of couscous and its pivotal role in saving the family’s ageing patriarch, Slimane, from poverty as he plans to open a restaurant. The food itself, then, becomes a richly suggestive metaphor for the protagonist’s role as the very grain that holds his family together and the life source they have always relied on. Kechiche reminds viewers of the cultural significance of food, especially for immigrants such as Slimane whose memories of home are acutely tied to a particular dish, and the cultural specificity it represents. Indeed, the ceremonial sharing of food engenders an unmistakable sense of community, warmth and even knowledge since it reminds us of who we are.
The food has intoxicated her and now she is nothing but love, elemental, stripped of all the constricting artifice associated with the family
As Kechiche’s award-winning film suggests, cinema’s foregrounding of food offers a distinct representation of cultural history through sensuous images and narratives in which the filming of food and its figuration are symbolic and highly revelatory. At its most potent, the cinematic evocation of food is entwined with its ritualistic pleasures, affirmative of familial bonds and the culture, old and new, that the food embodies.
While Couscous shows us the messiness of eating as a family, with added sound effects underlining its visceral role in bringing people together, Stanley Tucci’s 1950s-set directorial debut Big Night (1996) pays closer attention to the visual pleasure of food and the ways in which this forms as much a part of its ritualistic role as the taste itself.
Like Slimane, Tucci’s protagonist Secondo (played by the director) owns a restaurant, but it is a failing business. A plan is hatched for one last extraordinary meal that will entice not only new customers but also the Italian-American singer Louis Prima. This is an opportunity for Primo (Tony Shalhoub), Secondo’s brother, to shine after years of suppressing his authentic Italian cooking and catering for the unadventurous palates of the New Jersey Shore locale.
Following chic titles that announce each course, Tucci employs jump-cuts throughout the serving of the magnificent dishes in order to infuse his images with a constant sense of anticipation and movement, intercut with shots of diners’ reactions, applauding and awestruck. Each platter is beautifully presented, from a glistening sucking pig to a plate of asparagus and buttered beans. The camera pans along the table, following the movement of serving and Italian silverware clinking on fine bone china plates, but this sequence is above all about spectatorship and food, of looking on in wonder. While Primo’s efforts do not, ultimately, save Secondo’s business, the “big night” enables the brothers to reconcile and allows Secondo to respect Primo’s artistry and talent for cooking.
Italian food is also at the centre of Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love (2009). This tells the story of an elite Milanese family that owns a prominent textile business and the dramatic awakening of its perfectly groomed matriarch, Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton), after years of sacrificing herself for others. It opens with a family gathering in which each guest arrives and is ushered from one cavernous and decadent room to the next.
The ritualistic representation of food is here foregrounded by the manner in which it arrives at the table rather than its beauty or sensuous pleasure. The family are waited on, so each moment within the dining scene is played out at a funereal pace, with hushed tones, tentative gestures and staff whose shadows seem to loom like ghosts at a banquet. The tone emphasises Emma’s predicament as a controlled and entombed object – her life is as choreographed and as joyless as the meal.
A total contrast is established when Emma embarks on an affair with a young chef. We see him feeding her in his summerhouse, beautifully lit with lingering shots of Emma’s eyes closed: her rapture and rebirth. These scenes shimmer with the light of the pastoral idyll she inhabits, lush, vibrant, a world away from the mausoleum of her house in Milan. At the end of the film, Emma appears fleetingly at her home before running away with her lover.
We momentarily capture a glimpse of her unadorned, without make-up, jewellery and designer clothes. The food has intoxicated her and now she is nothing but love, elemental, stripped of all the constricting artifice associated with the Recchi family.
Unlike the elaborate and extended dining scenes in Couscous, Big Night and I Am Love, Ritesh Batra’s recent Indian romantic drama, The Lunchbox (2013), recreates the ritual of eating as a portable delight. Named after the quintessential stainless-steel tiffin-carrier synonymous with Indian lunch and picnics, Batra’s film focuses attention on Mumbai’s dabbawallas, the couriers who transport meals, freshly prepared from home or by local eateries, around the city. The plot centres on an office worker (Irrfan Khan) whose lunch order is confused with one that a lonely housewife makes for her husband, and the exchanges between the couple before they realise their love for each other.
At the film’s heart is the ritual associated with eating from a tiffin-carrier, passed from one hand to another by its solid handle and then opened, layer by layer, separating each container of food. This dismantling of one object into many and then its reassembling becomes a ceremony that underscores the recipient’s break from the daily grind. Batra’s love letter to the Indian lunchbox highlights the ways in which modernity has shaped this ritual through the globalisation of Mumbai and its growing hub of office workers, all connected by the intricate web of dabbawallas.
Food is also celebrated through the ritual of eating in Gabriel Axel’s acclaimed Babette’s Feast (1987). For nearly half a century, Babette has worked as a cook for a devout pair of sisters, preparing wholesome but banal food on a meagre budget. When she wins the lottery, she spends everything on a banquet for the sisters, in gratitude for their help since they sheltered her as a young refugee. The food is an act of spectacular generosity and selflessness, an offering of corporeal pleasure that the sisters have little knowledge of.
This Danish film won accolades for its delicate tracking of Babette’s preparation of food, her investment in this process and her arrangement of every morsel. The images in her kitchen recall Vermeer’s deep blue and ochre colour palette, dark and austere. We see Babette arranging waxy grapes and plums as if such earthly pleasures embody some kind of divinity. Figs and dates also tumble over a table like a biblical image, reminding us of Christ’s Last Supper.
The ritual of eating and its cultural specificity is richly evoked by cinema because it situates viewers as participants in an affirmative ceremony, from its preparation and distribution to the consumption of food (via sensuous images). Furthermore, in all cultures, eating together is predicated on trust, kinship and intimacy. Some films use meals to show such links unravelling to dramatic effect, but more often than not, cinema celebrates the value of such glorious rituals, an eating with the eyes that is shaped precisely through the aesthetics of cinematic practice.