Big screen cinema is the most evocative art medium for conjuring strong sensory feeling and emotion around depictions of food and drink. It comes as no surprise then that the function of eating and drinking as a source of nourishment or revulsion, comfort or anxiety, sustenance or poison, plays a pivotal role in a number of films across the BFI London Film Festival programme this year. Here are a few recommendations for those of strong stomach, good palate and an appetite for experimentation.
In Philip Barantini’s remarkable single shot UK thriller Boiling Point the finest food and drink proves both the essence of survival and the potential source of undoing for head chef Andy Jones (a phenomenal Stephen Graham) as he struggles to keep his chaotic top London restaurant – along with its dysfunctional staff – under control and his clientele fed and watered. Here, the frenetic preparation and presentation of high-end cuisine keeps the momentum of the action and the restless camera constantly in motion.
The slightest error or miscalculation of ingredients could prove disastrous for Andy and his team. Sniffy critics, nervous management and demanding punters circle. Andy is already spiralling with his own addictive appetites, while everyone from the cooks and waiting staff to the customers and management have their own detailed motivations for seeing his business succeed or fail. The film’s daring formal conceit and intense atmosphere of dread give proceedings a thrilling inevitability. Food and its consumption act as a direct symbol for the busy, chaotic stuff of survival in a cutthroat world.
Restaurants and bars loaded with ominous significance also figure in everything from Charlie Shackleton’s hypnotic and haunting experimental film The Afterlight to Andrew Gaynord’s raucous anti-romcom All My Friends Hate Me. In The Afterlight, Shackleton assembles a stream of beautifully edited clips from classical cinema. Together, they form a newly composed narrative in which deceased movie stars gather in a ghostly bar across films and across time. Through ingenious editing the eponymous bar becomes a fully realised, three-dimensional and uncannily vivid space where cinematic ghosts convene and share sustenance even in death.
In All My Friends Hate Me, meanwhile, an apparently warm and welcoming country pub appearing towards the end of the film becomes the focal point of intense anxiety, revulsion, cringe comedy, even the threat of physical violence as events spiral out of control. Here, Gaynord assembles a cast of affluent character archetypes familiar from Richard Curtis romcoms and perversely flips them to become grotesques, as Pete (Tom Stourton) comes to suspect a birthday weekend with his friends is an elaborate trap. Cinematic signs of comfort, easy laughs and sentiment take on a horrible significance, the film playing with characters and locales in a hilariously unpleasant spirit of misanthropy.
Ruth Paxton’s frighteningly intense horror A Banquet is more explicitly concerned with actual foodstuff, evoking rot, revulsion and death when it comes to presenting culinary offerings. After a perverse night-time experience, moody teen Betsey (Jessica Alexander) suddenly stops eating, leading mother Holly (Sienna Guillory) to panic that she may be suffering from an illness or, even worse, that a malevolent presence has invaded her body.
Taking visual cues from Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016), Paxton’s film is crammed with imagery of grotesque abundance, including plates of rotting vegetables and meat oozing with gunk. Food is here presented as a kind of abjection and threat to its cast of mixed-up teens and confused adults. It’s a potent and stylish exploration of eating disorders and (grotesquely heightened) growing pains, with astute genre flourishes.
Incidentally, for those with an appetite for even more extreme imagery of spit, mucous, vomit and faecal matter, look no further than Lucile Hadžihalilović’s utterly unique, horribly beautiful art horror Earwig, and Rob Savage’s intensely scatological and hilarious found-footage horror DASHCAM. Both in different ways heroically present some of the most challenging and revolting imagery to be found anywhere in the festival. Be warned.
A more appetising and harmonious offering of food can be found in Emmanuel Carrère’s Between Two Worlds in which the simple offer of a meal from a fellow job seeker is the starting point for undercover journalist Marianne (Juliette Binoche) and her dubious venture into low-paid cleaning work in a French coastal town. Then in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s wonderful film Drive My Car, a delicious shared meal at the film’s midpoint proves less ambiguously positive, acting as the turning point for heartbroken stage actor/director Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), as he connects with people again and begins a journey towards real creativity and personal healing.
More familial and friendship bonds are strengthened by food in Celine Sciamma’s exquisite Petite Maman, where the messy preparation of a pancake is a bonding exercise between two little girls, while the warmest, most nostalgic passages from Paolo Sorrentino’s sprawling autofiction The Hand of God centre on raucous shared family meals. There, a cast of eccentrics share jokes, argue and shout at one another over plates of extravagant cheese, pasta and wine, the film’s elaborate cinematography drawing out colours, textures and tastes in the dishes and libations all over the screen.
Finally, personal liberation and joy through food and drink, inextricably linked to love, sex and excess, fuses with uneasy imagery of meat in Michel Franco’s weirdly moving thriller Sundown. Tim Roth’s enigmatic lead Neil reacts strangely to personal tragedy by marooning himself in a holiday resort while his family return home. Embracing anonymity and sexual opportunity, Neil gorges on food, beer and sex. As the film progresses and we learn more about him, horrifying imagery of pig slaughter and decay begins to appear in the action.
A cinematic puzzle piece, always shifting between malevolence and warmth, the film is ambiguous to its final moments. Yet it remains committed to presenting the unambiguous pleasure of enjoying good food, drink and sex in the sunshine – even in the face of danger and violence.
Become a BFI Member from £37 to enjoy priority London Film Festival booking as well as other great benefits all year round.Join today