The Menu: a feast for the senses
Real fine dining can be an interesting experience. For anyone who’s ever tried a fancy taster menu or been astounded by restaurant prices in Luxembourg, The Menu is bound to resonate.
Imagine the most high-brow eatery which would make all the extravagant spots in the Grand Duchy look crummy in comparison. Now imagine it being run by a cult led by a demented Gordon Ramsay.
Ralph Fiennes stars as celebrity chef Julian Slowik, an eccentric and meticulous cook who operates his restaurant, Hawthorne, like a tightly run ship. World-renowned for his extensive culinary events (comprising numerous courses and running well into the night), his kitchen staff are fiercely devoted to him.
For an extra special event, he’s invited celebrities and food critics to Hawthorne to try his newest creations - an event which will blur the borders between performance and culinary art.
Along for the ride are Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a foodie and obsessive Slowik fan, and his clueless date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). The latter is taken aback by Slowik’s methods: his staff work in the open kitchen as if entranced while he himself indulges in intense and self-important showmanship. Around her she sees pretentious food critics, cocky banker-types and semi-washed up celebrities. It's a rich person’s world, and one totally alien to her.
But for the zealous Slowik, this is to be his final dinner/performance. The doors to the restaurant (located on a remote island) are locked as the head chef’s tone shifts towards the disquieting. In a moment in which all hell breaks loose in this bizarre Hell’s Kitchen, a kitchen staff member ceremoniously commits suicide in the middle of the dining area. Talk about ambience.
The Menu effectively sets itself up to be an elaborate and self-contained performance by Slowik and his devoted team of cultists. Given that the action is entirely enclosed within the confines of the snazzy restaurant and planned out by its proprietor, the guests’ reactions prefigure the course of events. Protest as they might, they find themselves trapped in a show in which they are unwillingly a part of.
This narrative effect, akin to a storm in a bottle, makes The Menu an interesting piece of psychological horror. Slowik’s murderous final performance makes every guest a set-piece and their resistance a part of the event. Every guest (bar Margot) was invited for a reason: either they willingly agreed to be ceremonially murdered, somehow crossed Slowik, or are a kind of person he deeply dislikes.
Except Tyler’s date, Margot, whom he invited after his girlfriend dumped him shortly before the event. She’s a hitch in Slowik’s plan, an unwanted guest for what’s to be everyone’s last supper. This throws the murderous master chef off as she refuses to play along from the get-go and doesn’t fit his artistic vision. Here a crack shows in Slowik’s storm in a bottle - and threatens to derail an already psychotic multi-course meal.
But this tension doesn’t subvert its enclosed performance art framing. There is nothing any of the other guests can really do since their kicking and screaming against their entrapment has already been prefigured as part of Slowik’s Gesamtkunstwerk. Margot won’t be able to escape conventionally; Slowik’s planning is too meticulous and his staff too faithful.
No knight in shining armour
Taylor-Joy is given time to shine as Margot wittily plays along with Slowik’s games while the violence escalates. This way, the film’s demented and frightening logic is only ever elaborated on. There is no miraculous saviour figure, no overpowering a security guard and stealing the key. And the film is all the better for it.
The Menu, high-concept as it is, nevertheless continuously risks veering into the cringeworthy since it so heavily hinges on its lead, Slowik, his showmanship and his handling of Margot. But Ralph Fiennes, by virtue of his Shakespearean training and air, ensures a successful balancing act of artistic elegance and derangement. He’s like Patrick Stewart in that regard: eloquent and always speaking in theatrical timbre. He’s unlike Patrick Stewart in other aspects though, in that he can be incredibly creepy and he has hair.
Fiennes, in this sense, doesn’t buckle under the weight of The Menu’s central role. Never teetering too far into either Gordon Ramsay-ism or deranged death-stare psychopathy, it’s a role that seems tailor-made in hindsight. Taylor-Joy too is given a select few moments, although the spotlight never strays far from The Menu’s principal antagonist, its crazed cook.
It’s a vaguely Black Mirror-ish psychological thriller served with a side of horror and garnished with a fun and nuanced performance by Fiennes. And unlike cheesy food-related puns, it doesn’t grow stale. It fully elaborates on its chilling vision and in many ways fosters an acute sense of culinary claustrophobia.
Like many high-brow restaurants in Luxembourg, the experience is bewildering and scary, the effect being similar to seeing how much a tiny, overengineered dish costs at one of those upscale restaurants in the city.