“The food in that movie looked so good.” There’s nothing quite as aggravating as delicious onscreen food. Think of the plump, glistening, jeweled globs of sashimied perfection served to the camera in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and weep with frustrated desire. Let’s face it: That film, and others like it, have honed the fine art of cinematography as exquisite torture.
If, however, the visual apprehension of food creates such tension for the mind and body—a short-circuiting of our sensory instincts—why do food-centric movies remain so popular? The answer, of course, is that food, like clothing, is an incredibly rich cultural signifier and storytelling device, both ripe for fetishization and so familiar that we often overlook its cinematic affect. Thus, Feast for the Eyes: a blog that seeks to chart the gastronomic iconography of the screen, move forward from simple fantasies of edibility, and ponder instead the depths of narrative, character and theme that a simple pastry can encode between its buttery layers. And also answer questions like, “Why is running your own bakery so often presented as the be-all and end-all of feminine happiness?”
From Chocolat to Chef (see this menu explication from Roy Choi himself), from Tarantino to Miyazaki, from The Trip to, well, The Trip to Italy… you’ll never watch a dinner table scene in the same way again. We start with dessert: a seemingly harmless plate of strudel from 2009’s Inglourious Basterds. And note – this dish contains spoilers.
Besides linguistic ability (or lack thereof), food is the primary means for social manipulation in Inglourious Basterds—and the grandmaster of the film’s particular brand of gastronomic chess is Christoph Waltz’s sublime, despicable Colonel Hans Landa. It’s hard not to love a villain who’s a foodie, and who, more importantly, uses food as his chief means of asserting power. Of the film’s five chapters, three (One, Three and Four) adopt a dining table as location for the central action: in the farmhouse of the most wretched dairy farmer in France; at a fashionable, Nazi-swarmed Parisian restaurant; and in a basement bar, respectively. These setpieces, static as they may seem at first glance, are where the theater of power dynamics, facilitated by Quentin Tarantino’s tight-as-a-drum dialogue, gets the most play.
In Chapter Three, “A German Night in Paris,” the second of these table sequences involves Shoshanna Dreyfuss (the equally-sublime Melanie Laurent) and Landa at Chez Maurice (ironically, really the Cafe Einstein in Berlin). The scene unfolds to the audience as a single, chillingly impenetrable, question: Does Landa know that the young woman opposite him in a fashionable Parisian restaurant in 1944—apparently the gentile theater-owner Emmanuelle Mimieux—is really the Jewish escapee of his farmhouse massacre in 1941?
Shoshanna’s presence at this table—first with director Joseph Goebbels and would-be-paramour Frederick Zoller, now with Landa—is ostensibly by invitation, though all parties are aware that she is here through sheer coercion. As he did in Chapter One with the hapless Farmer LaPadite, Landa methodically twists the metaphorical knife into his unwilling companion. Settling into his interrogation, he orders Shoshanna and himself each a strudel, a glass of wine for himself, and then, in either cruel coincidence or the gesture of a cat playing with its mouse, a glass of milk for her. And while Landa is too clever to play his cards at this stage (we imagine), it’s hard not to take this—as Shoshanna does—as a sly nod to her true identity as a dairy farmer’s daughter.
More notes on dessert choice: Strudel, Austrian in origin, is a dish with nationalistic significance for Landa, who though stationed in Paris is Austrian by birth. Also (in what is, yes, an interpretive stretch – but our compliments to Wikipedia), strudel is originally a German word meaning “whirlpool” or “eddy.” Whether or not Tarantino was deliberating planting that etymological Easter egg, could any image be more symbolic of Shoshanna’s current psychological state?
At any rate, the strudel arrives, but Landa realizes out loud that he’s forgotten the dish’s key ingredient: whipped cream. Throughout Basterds, Landa is given a slyly cartoonish lechery, from his massive calabash pipe to his leering at the farmer’s three lovely daughters. Yet with his large head and narrow shoulders, the buttoned-up colonel hardly cuts a figure of masculine heterosexual carnality, whatever sexuality he possesses taking second place to his maniacally complicated political games. It is with food, then, that the character’s lust—for blood and otherwise—finds the most accord. Landa has a weakness for dairy that runs into the fetishistic, we already know from Chapter One: In that first scene, he refuses wine in favor of milk – a childish gesture that becomes distinctly repugnant when he downs the glass in one go, all lip-smacking, lascivious relish. Here, at the restaurant, Landa directs Shoshanna like a puppet. Just as she makes to tuck into her dish, he stops her: “Wait for the cream.” (Waltz delivers this line with such unabashed teasing glee that it’s a highlight of his Oscar-winning turn.)
Unseen hands dole said cream out—the camera is fixed on Shoshanna and Landa, sitting in silence. Then, rather suddenly, we are treated to lavish close-ups of the cream, looking pristine in its bowl. The shot is disquieting, so intently have we been watching the two faces. Springy and white as snow, the cream cuts cleanly and perfectly by a ladle, and sits with admirable firmness atop the powdered sugar of the pastry.
“Not so terrible,” Landa pronounces obsequiously. While Shoshanna’s single bite of the dish is wary and obligatory, and she can barely tear her eyes from him, Landa consumes his strudel with gusto, by all appearances more interested in his dessert than Shoshanna’s murmured responses to his questions (save for a precipitously lengthy shot of Waltz at his most forbidding—just for kicks). Until, that is, the end of their conversation, when, getting up, he stubs his cigarette out right smack into his unfinished pastry. The ensuing close-up is a picture of dirtied pristineness; an innocuous trifle senselessly spoiled.
It fills Shoshanna and the audience with unreasonable dread, speaking of a taste for destruction sans reason – and the discomforting understanding that, like his apparent ignorance of Shoshanna’s identity, Landa’s appetite for strudel might be nothing but a farce. MM
Screenshots taken by MovieMaker Magazine.
Check back for more servings of Feast for the Eyes – as well as guest post next week from Land Ho!‘s resident Icelandic foodie, director Aaron Katz.