The Menu: black comedy satire of class warfare in microcosm

Mark Mylod, “The Menu” (2022)

A satirical commentary on Western gastronomy culture – and through it, much of contemporary Western culture – “The Menu” carries a great deal (perhaps too much so) about the relationship of artists with their art, and with their audiences, critics and fans alike. This applies not only to celebrity chefs and their fanbases but to other artists, including musicians and writers, and the respective cultures, even industries, that have grown up on their efforts and on which they, the artists themselves, rely.

A young couple, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margo (Anya Taylor-Joy), is invited by celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) to dine at his exclusive restaurant Hawthorne on a remote island along with several other selected guests: these include a food critic and her partner, a businessman and his wife, and a group of tech business investors who helped finance Hawthorne’s establishment. Escorted by Elsa, the head waiter (Hong Chau), the guests arrive at the restaurant and the cooks and waiters soon start serving the various courses. Each course is accompanied by an explanatory monologue given by Slowik, and as the dinner proceeds, the monologues become increasingly disturbing, even violent. Slowik’s intentions for his guests become clear: nearly all of them have some connection with his rise to celebrity fame, or are close to him in some way. Only Margo, who is not one of the original invitees but was asked by Tyler to come along after he broke up with his girlfriend, has no connection to Slowik and accordingly he regards her as a potential spoiler of his sinister plans for the other guests.

Though the film has a sparing look, its structuring (if a bit conventional for a film about food, its preparation and its serving) is careful and much black humour is inserted into the descriptions of the dishes as they are served. The dishes themselves reflect changes in the plot and Slowik’s plans: the chefs serving under Slowik and eventually the guests also become essential ingredients in the dishes. The dishes and their execution say much about the relationship of artists with their art and the expectations society often heaps upon artists with little or no thought for the efforts that artists put into their work or for rewarding them appropriately. All too often artists are treated as little more than profit-making machines or existing only to entertain and titillate consumers of their products.

Slowik’s treatment of his diners and of Margo, whom he singles out and treats differently, alerts us to a major theme of “The Menu”: the issue of class and inequality, and how some individuals exploit their position in society for selfish reasons, leaving others to suffer. The tech business investors are revealed (ingeniously, through tortillas laser-printed with details of their trades) as having carried illegal trades on the stock market; and the B-grade film star (John Leguizamo) is publicly shamed for putting love of money over his work as a supposed artist. The rich businessman (Reed Birney) has cheated on his wife (Judith Light) and we discover that Margo has been involved with him in the past – as call girl Erin. All of the original invited guests turn out to be parasites profiting from the efforts of worker bees without having put in time and sweat themselves. Only Margo / Erin has had direct experience of working in service to more powerful and wealthier people than she.

The restaurant staff’s treatment of the guests could be seen as the vengeance of workers against their capitalist exploiters – except that the staff themselves behave more like fanatical members of a bizarre personality cult than like self-aware workers of Marxist theory. Slowik’s treatment of his staff, requiring them to live more or less permanently on the island, cut off from the rest of the world, smacks of creepy megalomania. Fiennes’s portrayal of Slowik is severe and implacable, draining all humanity and compassion, it seems, from the character. Slowik’s encounters with Margo though eventually hit a nerve with him; once he realises that Margo has discovered his history and uses it to bait and challenge him, he regains a little humanity and allows Margo to escape his trap.

The plot treats its characters as stereotypes representing the various layers within the social classes and therefore there is little character development even of the two main characters Slowik and Margo. Taylor-Joy invests her role with an intense energy and is the stand-out actor of the cast. Audiences will have to find satisfaction in the film’s depiction of class welfare between the undeserving, spoilt rich and the workers on whom they prey, and the terrible consequences that arise when the serfs overthrow their tormentors.