Discreet charm

From political allegory to a call for simple pleasures, the history of food in film uncovers a wider retreat into bourgeois comfort. By Maria Dimitrova

Tank _autumn 2016_47Don Rafael betrays his hiding place under the dinner table during a break-in by reaching for a slice of roast lamb in Luis Buñuel’s iconic, satirical masterpiece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).

What does it mean to speak of comfort food? In his cultural history of the bourgeoisie (The Bourgeois, 2013), Franco Moretti uses the concept of comfort to outline the “contours of legitimate bourgeois consumption”. While the word “comfort” is a late-Latin compound meaning “something producing physical ease” and “strengthening, support, consolation”, by the late-17th century it had acquired a new meaning, signifying not a relief from affliction but the pursuit of well-being as an end in itself. This ambiguity reflects the two contradictory sets of values that came with the establishment and rise of the bourgeois class: “the ascetic imperative of modern production” and “the desire for enjoyment of a rising social group”. Nowhere is this shift more evident for Moretti than in the story of Robinson Crusoe, the quintessential hero of bourgeois self-making, who early on in Daniel Defoe’s novel worries about not having “anything to eat or drink to comfort me”. He takes care to cultivate grain, a necessity, as well as a more indulgent crop of grapes, restoring an element of pleasure to his otherwise monotonous routine of work. It is the notion of comfort as “work made pleasant” – in Crusoe’s case literally the work of survival – that embodies the post-17th century definition, which Moretti juxtaposes with our current idea of comfort as running closer to its original meaning, as relief from work. This paradox of comfort – shifting between necessity and luxury, succour and enjoyment – is particularly visible in the history of film’s treatment of food. 

Beyond serving as a prop or transitional device, food from the early years of the cinema appeared as a form of social critique, from D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909), about an exploitative finance tycoon who ends up suffocating in a wheat chute and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), in which a machine force-feeds a worker to save time and increase efficiency, to Buñuel’s controversial documentary of the Spanish Las Hurdes region, Land Without Bread (1933).  

Tank _autumn 2016_48Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, released in 1936, is the high-water mark of modernism’s preoccupation with food, as Chaplin eschews the dinner party for a mechanised feeding machine.  

By the 1960s and 1970s, food had become a recurrent symbol of the moral bankruptcy underpinning bourgeois consumption, evident throughout European cinema, from Marco Ferreri’s La Grand Bouffe (1973), in which a group of aristocrats go to a villa for the weekend to feast themselves to death, to Yugoslav director Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie (1974) whose female protagonist captains a candy-filled boat with a large, papier mâché Karl Marx head attached to its helm, luring young boys with sweets before killing them. Most deliciously subversive is perhaps Věra Chytilová’s film Daisies (1966) which follows two teenage girls as they go to dinner with different middle-aged, rich men and eat enormous portions of food before leaving their dates at the train station. The Czech director’s film ends with the girls demolishing a carefully laid out banquet before stomping over the leftovers, breaking everything. In the final scene, they reset the table with the broken glasses and dishes, moulding the remaining food into repulsive mounds and whispering with slapstick speed: “We are good and hardworking. We shall be happy and everything will be wonderful.” The demolition of food – “the fruit of the work of our toiling farmers” – was one of the reasons the Czech Communist government called for a ban of the film.

Tank _autumn 2016_49While Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel of 1966 (left) is a comedy of manners set at a bourgeois dinner party that its characters are unable to leave, Daisies (right), of the same year, is a rhapsody of 1960s excess and release. 

There has been no critic of the bourgeoisie in film as caustic and tender as Luis Buñuel whose first feature film in colour, released in 1954, was a loose adaptation of Robinson Crusoe. In his later films, the critique often focuses on either the social rituals surrounding food or its conspicuous absence. His Oscar-winning The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) – an inversion of his 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, where a group of wealthy friends come together for dinner only to find themselves unable to leave – follows a group of insouciant characters who try to have dinner together but are constantly interrupted to the point that food is never eaten. Functioning like a protracted tease, the plot fans out into increasingly surreal scenarios, from the death of a restaurateur to the arrival of the cavalry between courses, distilling the protagonists’ growing irritation. They are not a difficult or demanding group; they are awaiting something quite reasonable. After all, it is their dinner. Buñuel closes in on this unscrupulous and immutable expectation of bourgeois comfort, even in the face of the absurd. Underneath their pristine veneer, Buñuel’s protagonists commit adultery, deal cocaine, mistreat their servants and admire the refinement of the Nazi war criminals they meet. During the last attempted dinner, one of the protagonists makes an almost magnanimous admission of a love for simple comfort food. “Maybe I’m a bit perverse,” she smiles, “but I have a weakness for American canned beans,” picking up her fork just as a group of insurgents breaks in and guns everybody down.

Tank _autumn 2016_50La Grand Bouffe (1977) epitomises the critique of the bourgeois rituals of gastronomy, as aristocrats retreat to a country estate to feast themselves to death.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the sort of critical edge displayed by Buñuel began to give way to utopian glorification of food, in parallel with postmodernism’s growing aestheticisation of everyday life. For the first time, food moved from the periphery to the core of these stories, giving rise to the “food film” genre with a distinctive visual syntax that prioritised the detail and texture of ingredient, as well as the preparation and consumption of food. Jûzô Itami’s Tampopo (1985), a sensuous quest for creating the perfect bowl of ramen, was followed by Babette’s Feast (1987), Like Water for Chocolate (1992) and Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). The sensuous quality of food and its entanglement with pleasure is invoked in these films to undermine rigid and reactionary social forms – from the severe religious community of Babette’s Feast to Japanese class structure in Tampopo. “Food suggests the possibility of an ideal state,” wrote critic Roger Ebert of a later addition to the food genre, Big Night (1994), about an Italian immigrant chef who views his cooking as high art and refuses to conform to American mainstream tastes, relating the new aesthetics of food to thinking about gastronomy as microcosm. This is especially true, if inverted, in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989). Greenaway conjures a hermetic world in the grip of entrepreneurial class arrogance, crassness and greed; for the Thatcherite bourgeoisie, the sensuousness of food and romance are depicted as escapism and distraction. Set within the confines of a gourmet restaurant overtaken by a thief who terrorises the staff and other guests, the film depicts a world feeding upon itself. “I’m an artist in the way I combine my business and my pleasure,” says the thief. “Money’s my business, eating’s my pleasure.” 

Tank _autumn 2016_51By 1987, the tide had turned. Babette’s Feast explored the fault lines between austere Denmark and sensual, Bacchic France. It remains perhaps the most iconic “food film”, preoccupied with the rich pleasures of the preparation and consumption of food.

It seems that with the rise of neoliberalism – increasingly marketised institutions and a culture of competitive individualism – our understanding of food shifts to become a technique of self-care, as well as a refuge from the world of others. Food visualisation begins borrowing techniques from pornography, as extreme close-ups, amplified sound and fetishistic attention to glistening ingredients fill the screens of cooking shows and films to establish a visual style of foodie-ism. In Feasting Our Eyes, their forthcoming study of food films and cultural identity in the United States, Fabio Parasecoli and Laura Lindenfeld write that, despite the food films of the 2000s’ engagement with liberal themes (ideological pluralism, class flexibility, racial acceptance and gender equality), they often affirm reactionary and conventional ideas. The authors trace the relationship between anxiety and the food-film genre, while showing food media as ensuring that “viewers engage with worlds that are safe and clean”. In Julie & Julia (2009), Julie works for a company dealing with post-9/11 insurance claims. Food becomes a refuge from work, but also from engaging systematically with the world; it is served as a self-creation narrative of a woman going her own way while actually folding inwards. “Chocolate cream pie,” she tells her husband one day after work. “You know what I love about cooking? I love that after a day when nothing is sure, I mean nothing, nothing, you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.” 

Tank _autumn 2016_52The joy of cooking became synonymous with middle-class, globalised life – whether in Tokyo, as in the classic film Tampopo (left), from 1987, which kickstarted the retreat to the kitchen during the cruel austerity of the 1980s, or in Julie & Julia (right), from 2009, perhaps the ultimate representation of the “American foodie” in an age of insecurity, post-9/11 and post-2008 financial crisis. 

If food used to be depicted in a way that suggested its social meaning, it has now become an escape from the social. What can we control? Not much, but at least what it is that we put in our mouths. The underpinning philosophy of the call for simple comforts is that we can achieve a meaningful existence by collapsing every social problem into a personal quest for the good life. The good life here acquires an ethical dimension too, as care for the body often becomes conflated, aesthetically, with a more ascetic, sustainable and scaled-down way of living. From the driftwood surfaces and farmers’ market shopping trips of Nancy Meyers’ movies and back-to-basics gourmet food truck of Jon Favreau, to the “quiet breakfasts” and domestic pleasures as part of the “slow” lifestyle championed by magazines such as Kinfolk, the new ideology of comfort positions itself against industrialised monoculture, elitism and wastefulness. This magnanimous scaling down, combined with a fervent enthusiasm for the sensuality of everyday life, goes right back to the roots of bourgeois self-creation. For the classical bourgeoisie in the period between the French Revolution and the First World War, food was meant to be fine but not indulgent, filling but not excessive; dinners were supposed to be neither the sybaritic banquets of the ancien régime nor peasant feasts of riotous indulgence. Max Weber writes in The Protestant Ethic of Late Capitalism that, “Over against the glitter and ostentation of feudal magnificence, which, resting on an unsound economic basis, prefers sordid elegance to sober simplicity, [the bourgeois] set the clean and solid comfort of the middle-class home as an ideal.” 

As a moral justification, comfort’s ambiguous positioning between usefulness and luxury adjusts according to the political demands of the moment. Here the political inappropriateness of elitism or entitlement is turned into something that is consumable and even associated with the rough dignity of the common worker. If the classical bourgeoisie never prepared its food, the contemporary bourgeois has an almost scholarly sense of where his food was “sourced” and by whom it was prepared (wage rates are not discussed). Distressed furniture, farm-to-table, locally sourced and lovingly prepared dinners become the new mark of authenticity and what legitimates bourgeois consumption is no longer just moderation but foodie knowledge and conscious eating. Angela Carter noted in the London Review of Books that the US restaurant pioneer Alice Waters’ insistence that depersonalised, mass-produced food deprives the senses of “true nourishment”, “can exist only in a society where hunger happens to other people”. There is an analogy with Marie Antoinette play-acting as a milkmaid in the Petit Trianon. Rejecting your privilege for the comfort of a homely, rough-hewn style of consumption is the biggest privilege of all: an aesthetic choice.   

Tank _autumn 2016_53The greatest work about dining by the greatest master: Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981), both embodies the great era of gastronomy while quietly mocking its false profundities.

In Louis Malle’s 1981 My Dinner with Andre, it is a dinner that provides the occasion for the questioning of how to live and experience the material world. Theatre director Andre Gregory (playing himself), having recently returned to “normal” life after several years of pursuing a more authentic way to live, including being baptised by Jerzy Grotowski-trained Polish actors in a forest, then buried alive in Long Island as part of a performance-art piece, tells his friend Wallace Shawn (also playing himself) that the only way to live is uncomfortably, against habit. Shawn, the pragmatist, believes in life’s simple pleasures. “I am looking for more comfort because the world is very abrasive,” he responds, and then, looking at his plate, “I didn’t know the quails were so small.” For Andre, comfort is dangerous for it “can lull you in a dangerous tranquillity”, but in all of Shawn’s defence of comfort, there is no hint of moral self-regard. “I am,” he says, “just trying to survive.” §