Moviegoers wearing protective face masks wait to watch a film at a cinema.
Moviegoers wearing protective face masks wait to watch a film at a cinema.
Image: MILAN JAROS/BLOOMBERG

The Arthouse Essential: La Grande Bouffe — YouTube

Director Marco Ferreri’s excessive satire of 1970s European bourgeois values was divisive and controversial when it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973. Legend has it that star Marcello Mastroianni had to endure a day of ice-cold silence from his then girlfriend French actress Catherine Deneuve after its screening and critical reception was loudly divided though it went on to win that year’s International Critics Prize.

Starring a European powerhouse cast of the era including Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Phillipe Noiret and Ugo Tognazzi, the film tells the story of four middle-aged male friends — an airline pilot, a gourmet chef, a television producer and a judge — who meet up for a weekend at a French villa to indulge in what New York Times critic Vincent Canby described as, “the gourmet weekend to end all gourmet weekends.”

They are initially joined by three sex workers who soon become bored of watching these privileged men stuff their faces full of the finest food that money can buy and pontificate their philosophical ponderings. Things soon get gross and ugly as the act of eating becomes increasingly hideous and bodily functions are not shied away from been overly explored on screen.

By the time you realise that what is actually happening in this grotesque bacchanale is not “the gourmet weekend to end all gourmet weekends,” but rather the execution of a macabre suicide pact, it’s too late to turn away.

As they take their final bites the film leaves you with a very nasty taste in your mouth but also an appreciation for its bitterly funny vaudevillian high jinks and it’s still sharply satirical dissection of the era’s vulgar consumerist excesses and narcissistic self-destructive impulses.

If ever there was a food movie to almost turn you off food forever, this is probably it.

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The Stone Cold Classic: Eat Drink Man Woman — YouTube

Ang Lee’s 1994 family comedy remains a superior piece of heartwarming celebratory fare that centres the power and mystery of food as a major ingredient of the glue that bonds families together.

It’s the story of Mr Zhu, an ageing widower and retired Taipei chef, and his three daughters, who though they are all different in personality, are all drawn together every Sunday for the mouthwatering meals their father diligently prepares. As each of his daughters begins to explore new paths in their lives and face the challenges of a rapidly modernising world, Mr Zhu must learn to accept that some things will have to change in spite of his best culinary efforts to keep them the same. The increasingly fraught arguments between Mr Zhu and his independent-minded children wanting to make the most of the opportunities that the world has to offer reflect the broader concern of the film with the ever-relatable battle between tradition and modernity.

At its heart it’s a gently funny, deeply moving and lip-smacking celebration of food, family and tradition that makes much out of what is left unsaid between its carefully drawn cast of characters gathered around the family table and will quietly reach for your heartstrings while also firmly reaching your stomach. 

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The Diamond in the Rough: Jiro Dreams of Sushi — Mubi.com

Family and food are also the major focus of David Gelb’s quietly groundbreaking 2011 documentary. It follows the ascetic daily life of master Japanese chef Jiro Ono who runs the tiny but world renowned three Michelin star-rated Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant in a Tokyo subway station.

There is no menu, only ten chairs, and no realistic chance of getting a reservation for the serving of the beautifully filmed and carefully executed sushi masterpieces that Ono produces. If you are lucky enough to get a slot for the 15-minute, $400 experience that Jiro is so celebrated for, it’s something you’ll never forget as evidenced by the testimony of overawed food critics from around the world.

As Ono quietly and methodically goes about creating his works of culinary art he reflects on his life and career and prepares, at the age of 85, to hand over his small kingdom to his two sons. Though they may have skills far surpassing most sushi chefs, his heirs' faces betray the fact that they will always have to live in the shadow of their father, whether he’s still there or not. That’s not helped by Jiro’s taciturn total focus on his art, which sometimes makes him come off as difficult and unappreciative of those around him.

The food though is always the star and it’s truly amazing stuff, guaranteed to have you salivating and planning by any means necessary to find a way to get yourself to that 10-seater-subway-hole-in-the-wall and place one of Ono’s offerings on your eager tongue for a brief moment of out-of-this-world culinary ecstasy.

Gelb’s first film set a new benchmark for how to film food and cooking with the respect it deserves and resulted in his creation of the docuseries Chef’s Table, which continues to set the standard for food filmmaking.

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