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‘The Menu’ Review: When Does Fine Dining Cross the Line?

Dir. Mark Mylod: 4 stars

"The Menu" is a uniquely modern film starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Fiennes, and Judith Light.
"The Menu" is a uniquely modern film starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Fiennes, and Judith Light. By Courtesy of Eric Zachanowich / Searchlight Pictures
By Thomas A. Ferro, Contributing Writer

The following review contains spoilers about the plot of “The Menu.”

“The Menu,” in theaters since Nov. 17, is a sophisticated, uniquely modern film starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Fiennes, and Judith Light, alongside other impressive actors. Incorporating harsh architectural lines and a strong but neutral color contrast on an otherwise natural setting, the film, set on a secluded island, provides a commentary on the glorification of food culture and its terrifying potential transformation from a once-noble standing to a new form of mass consumption.

The tyrannical villain of the story, Julian Slowik (Fiennes), is a highly decorated and rewarded chef, obsessed with precision, attention to detail, and control. In his restaurant, Slowik painstakingly creates a seemingly perfect, ever-changing menu that reflects the island, the seasons, and the customers. On the evening that the film takes place, each customer has been carefully chosen to partake in Slowik’s final dinner — a last gift, per se, to the world of haute cuisine.

When protagonist Margot (Taylor-Joy) appears as a surprise guest for the evening, her presence throws many, especially Slowik, off guard. Beyond advancing the plot, Margot, unimpressed by the elaborate food offered by Slowik, inserts a reality check in the quite overblown expression of food culture portrayed in the film. As one can be blinded by a glorious painting, or an exquisite symphony, one, too, can be blinded by what is believed to be the ultimate concoction of cuisine. At this treacherous point, do the diners see the chef’s art for what it is, or do they only see what they think the art should be?

One particularly incredible element of the film is its set, which emphasizes Slowik’s own precision. From the crustacean-covered shore to the quaint smokehouse, the attention to detail and interaction between modernity and nature are clearly at their peak.

One set that is quite interesting, for instance, is the chef’s cottage, which was an almost exact replica of the dining room itself. This creates the uncanny, almost “The Shining”-like atmosphere of psychological-thriller films, posing even more questions as to the mysterious background of the chef.

The film, as a whole, is unusual in the sense that it plays along the thin line between fiction and reality. The premise of a chef attracting people to an island and feeding them a many-course, inevitably intricate meal is very believable in our own modern food culture. Yet this film shows obsession going one step too far: a warning, perhaps, that as the evolution of food culture progresses towards more novelty and precision, consumers may forget that food should actually be warm, comforting, and something that will simply make one happy, as highlighted by Margot in the film.

Fiennes, historically a master at portraying evil, played Slowik very well, balancing the power and precision of a chef with the subtle insanity behind his eyes. Taylor-Joy’s character, the exact opposite of Slowik, provided a counterbalance to his tension, leaving much to say behind her eyes as well.

Tension is maintained very effectively throughout the film. With the frightening, powerful clap of Slowik’s hands, the attention of the cooks in the kitchen, and the delicate poetry he uses to describe each dish, one is captivated with both terror and amazement by the atmosphere Slowik creates.

By about halfway through their meal, the diners begin to understand what Slowik’s plans are, but they accept their fate a little too quickly for the film to be considered a realistic portrayal of human fear. While watching, viewers may forget that this entire movie occurs over the course of only a few hours. Therefore, the evolution and progression of characters within the plot seems a little forced, and not entirely realistic.

Other than the clearly antagonistic dynamic between Fiennes and Taylor-Joy — who, in a strange way, can come across as either friends or foes — the backstories and views of the other characters are less straightforward. Each, while appearing normal on the outside, are in one way or another flawed beings, all burdened by mistakes of a varying scale.

This powerful film highlights the incompatibility between supposed perfection and underlying imperfection of fine dining. The film examines how, while imperfect people may be drawn to the idea of perfection, perfection does not exist, though its seekers do not tolerate anything less. “The Menu” serves as a reminder that, in the long run, seeing the beauty in imperfection is a necessity that should not be overlooked — something Slowik has abysmally, and fatally, forgotten.

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