Cooking and eating have long been equated with sex. Harry Palmer’s suave one-handed egg-crack in The Ipcress File (1965) elevated the simple omelette far more than the addition of ham and onions, proving food-as-seduction is as much about the preparation as it is the ingredients. Never mind that it was author Len Deighton’s hands rather than Caine’s doing the work; a bespectacled sex symbol was born.
More transgressive offerings connect the kitchen with other corporeal matters: death, decay and excretion, inverting the notion that food equals nourishment in the process. In La Grande Bouffe (1973), four friends gorge themselves into oblivion; in Phantom Thread (2017), sauteed mushrooms incite sickness and dependency; and in Frenzy (1972), the cooking and slicing of greasy little birds offers a visceral, blackly comic nod to femicide.
Unlike sex, cooking on film also functions as a nonverbal language for more platonic displays of affection. Goodfellas (1990) – set in New York’s Little Italy district where Martin Scorsese grew up – is very much a foodie film, where slow-simmered red sauce binds mobsters to their heritage like a gangster blood oath. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Big Night (1996) and Couscous (2007) similarly weave their tales of family, community and tradition around the act of cooking.
To celebrate the release of Tran Anh Hùng’s gastronomic love story The Taste of Things, here are 10 other films that find transcendent pleasures in the kitchen. It’s by no means an exhaustive list; think of it as more of a tasting menu.
La Grande Bouffe (1973)
Director: Marco Ferreri
“If you don’t eat, you won’t die” whispers ringleader Ugo (Ugo Tognazzi), upending traditional wisdom around eating and life. The Italian provocateur Marco Ferreri’s best-known film is about four middle-aged men who retreat to a mansion in the country. Their mission? Gastronomical suicide. The party begins in style with an oyster-eating competition, before ennui, exploding toilets, pâté monstrosities and obscene deaths (you’ve been warned) dominate the festivities.
The four gourmands are ideological castaways, who, rather than conform to bourgeois moral standards, extract themselves from the system while cherry picking its purchasable bounties. In an ideological desert, why not eat yourself to death? Amid the jaded disgust lies a strikingly clear-sighted allegory on bourgeois consumerism that stops just shy of nihilism. It’s less a film about hunger, and more about the yawning void that follows sated desire.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Director: Chantal Akerman
1975 produced two kitchen-set films featuring women performing monotonous actions with increasing violence. Martha Rosler’s short film Semiotics of the Kitchen shows the filmmaker moving through the alphabet, assigning letters to kitchen utensils before signing the final six letters with her body. Meanwhile, Chantal Akerman’s austere portrait of a lonely housewife (played by Delphine Seyrig) operates in a similar way, gradually building to a tension-shattering climax through a patient layering of actions. In both films, the woman becomes a symbol of domestic production, where her daily tasks both define and alienate her.
In most of the films on this list, cooking functions as a harbinger of life via subversion, nourishment, connection or escape. We watch Dielman devoid of emotion as she peels potatoes, breads cutlets and stirs soups in real time. So profound is her cultural conditioning, each task functions as another brick in the wall of her prison, dutifully built, even in the absence of a patriarch.
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980)
Director: Les Blank
There’s no shortage of excellent documentaries about cooking, but Les Blank’s 20-minute film offers a unique take on the theme. Here, preparing and eating a boot becomes a symbol for artistic perseverance, a nod to Chaplin’s boot dinner in The Gold Rush (1925), and a promotional tool for Errol Morris’s 1978 feature Gates of Heaven.
The story goes that Morris, a protégé of Werner Herzog’s, was struggling to finish his film. Herzog said he’d eat his shoe if he managed to complete it. Errol finished his project and launched his career; Herzog boiled the leather footwear, seasoned liberally with garlic, hot sauce and rosemary, and made good his promise. Fans of Herzog’s dryly comic profundities will not be disappointed: the auteur muses on everything from chat shows to filmmaking as he blithely prepares his chewy dish. “I think there should be real war against commercials, real war against talk-shows, real war against Bonanza…”
Director: Juzo Itami
Roland Barthes once wrote, “an entire world is present in and signified by food”. It’s certainly true of Tampopo, where sex, birth, death and love are all intertwined around the central theme of cooking and eating. Structurally, the film functions as a series of vignettes, which all drift off and away from this seminal motif – much like the seeds of a dandelion, which is exactly what the word ‘tampopo’ means in Japanese.
Combining horny and hungry like no other (though 1992’s Like Water for Chocolate comes close second), Juzo Itami’s film isn’t coy in equating food with other life-giving pleasures. A slithery egg yolk passed between two lovers’ mouths and a glass of live shrimp held against a bare tummy might not be cooking in the traditional sense, but is as much about sating appetites as the rows of hungry patrons slurping hot soup. In sex, there are rules and taboos – both of which are ripe for breaking, done here with irresistible glee in this tale of a widow who makes it her mission to master the iconic noodle dish. Don’t view this one on an empty stomach.
Babette’s Feast (1987)
Director: Gabriel Axel
Gabriel Axel’s adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen) 1958 short story takes place on the windswept Jutland coast. One day, Babette, a French refugee, finds shelter with two pious protestant sisters in the remote village. She serves them loyally, until she wins the lottery. Instead of returning to Paris, she spends her winnings preparing a lavish feast for the sisters and their small congregation.
It’s a film of contrasts – between mysticism and logic, Catholic and Protestant, asceticism and lavish Parisian cooking. Initially sceptical of the sumptuous dishes, the guests slowly submit to the sheer pleasure of eating, which uplifts their spirits and breaks down old resentments, even while they refuse to acknowledge their decadent dinner as the catalyst. Cooking here is an act of self-sacrifice and self-expression as Babette reveals herself to be a true artist with the power to rejuvenate a community through gastronomic bliss.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
Director: Peter Greenaway
Described by Peter Greenaway as “a violent and erotic love-story”, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a parade of grotesquery culminating in a feast of exquisite viciousness. Surely it’s among the most repulsive scenes in cinema: a vengeful posse marching in unison carrying a platter of roasted… well, watch it and see. It’s a moment that utterly subverts the nourishing ritual of cooking, transforming it into a vehicle for savagery that’s rivalled only by the coprophilic feast in Saló, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975) in terms of queasy, yet mannered dining.
And if that hasn’t whet your appetite, Michael Gambon plays a psychopathic manchild turned nouveau riche restaurateur whose vulgarity embarrasses his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren). She has a love affair with a customer. They’re discovered, he’s punished, she exacts brutal revenge. Loosely based on John Ford’s Jacobean tragedy ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Greenaway’s adaptation cuts the incest plot but retains the tempestuous jealousy and retribution against a stylised backdrop of haute cuisine and haute couture (designed by none other than Jean-Paul Gaultier). Chic, sick and unafraid to document food’s final destination: the sewer.
Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
Director: Ang Lee
Considered the final instalment of Ang Lee’s ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy (along with 1991’s Pushing Hands and 1993’s The Wedding Banquet), Eat Drink Man Woman charts the ebb and flow of family, tradition and modernity through cooking, which serves as a central thread that unites various lives in flux.
Widowed chef Zhu (Sihung Lung) is something of a local hero in Taipei; in his home, however, he cuts a less impressive figure, acting as little more than a producer of lavish meals, which he prepares for his three daughters every Sunday. Muted in emotion, he expresses affection through his extravagant feasts, which also perpetuate traditional Chinese culture in the face of change, a recurring theme throughout the trilogy. Lee wisely avoids a cut-and-dry tale of old age versus progressive youth, and, in the end, the biggest act of rebellion comes from the father himself.
Mellow and gently melancholic, it’s the only film of Lee’s to be filmed in his native Taiwan, and went on to inspire two further cooking-themed family films: Tortilla Soup (2001) and Joyful Reunion (2012).
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Big Night (1996) is often considered the ultimate immigrant foodie film, but the lesser-known La Graine et le Mulet (released in the UK as Couscous) offers a particularly rich take on the theme, and culminates in a breathless culinary make-or-break denouement.
A well-assembled cast of mostly non-professional actors bring naturalism to this story of a Franco-Arab family living in the port city of Sète. Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares), a 60-year-old shipyard worker, dreams of opening a couscous restaurant aboard a dilapidated boat. He tackles his task with quiet determination, while redundancy, family division, duplicitous friends and French bureaucracy add to his woes.
It would have been easy to create a feel-good story about a community’s much-loved staple transcending petty squabbles. Alas, life is more complex. Couscous, expertly cooked by Beiji’s ex-wife, becomes a symbol of the difficulties inherent to the immigrant experience. Known for his long, emotionally charged shots, director Abdellatif Kechiche’s closing scene features a bellydance that brings long-simmering emotions to a boil. It’s worth watching for that alone.
The Other Side of Hope (2017)
Director: Aki Kaurismäki
“It took me maybe 10 minutes to just close my eyes and think that I’m home, and then all of a sudden it rains bombs,” said Syrian actor Sherwan Haji, speaking about his role as Khaled in The Other Side of Hope. It’s among Aki Kaurismäki’s most political films, tackling immigration and the idea of community through muted gestures that are either enormously generous or unfathomably callous.
It’s about a refugee who illegally enters Finland on a cargo ship, turns himself in, applies for asylum, then escapes when his application is rejected. He gets a job at a local café run by a former travelling shirt salesman (Sakari Jyrki Kuosmanen), and spends his days hoovering and making unappealing herring sushi. It’s typical of Kaurismäki’s style: deadpan, gloomy-romantic in tone, with the flat emptiness of an Edward Hopper painting. But beneath the cool drollery and tough-guy brutality, it’s an oddly appealing world filled with blues interludes, quick-fire gags and dashes of colour that hint at happier days to come.
First Cow (2019)
Director: Kelly Reichardt
“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship,” reads the William Blake quotation that opens Kelly Reichardt’s pioneer fable about an unlikely alliance on the American frontier. Set against the rugged backdrop of 1820s Oregon, the film follows Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), a skilled cook, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant with entrepreneurial vision. The outcasts bond over dreams of prosperity, which hinges on the illicit use of a wealthy landowner’s first and only cow to make and sell fried buttermilk biscuits, or ‘oily cakes’ as they’re known.
It’s an unassuming American Dream fable about hubris, ambition and the tussle between comradeship and capitalism. It’s not the first film to pair sweet treats with disillusionment and danger – Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and Mildred Pierce (1945) pip it to the post – but it’s certainly the most enticing, culinarily speaking. Freshly plucked mushrooms and sizzling batter amid yellowing leaves make it a cosy, bittersweet story that finds joy and sadness in life’s simple pleasures.