Cinematic Chat: privilege and pretension in “The Menu”

by Elsa Ying (’23) | March 31, 2023

Art by Kiana Allard (’24)

This article contains spoilers.

Premiering in fall of 2022, The Menu was a horror comedy film that brought not only gorgeous dishes but also a thought-provoking commentary on privilege to the big screen. The movie follows Margot Mills as her date, Tyler Ledford, takes her to Hawthorn, an exclusive restaurant located on a private island and owned by celebrity chef Julian Slowik. However, as the courses presented grow more and more sinister, the guests begin to realize their impending doom as Slowik declares that everyone will die that night.

Right from the start, the movie makes it clear that Mills doesn’t belong, with the restaurant maître d’hôtel Elsa pointing out that Mills was not Ledford’s original date. Furthermore, it’s soon revealed that Mills was an escort hired by Ledford to accompany him because Hawthorn only seats groups of two or more. In contrast, the other guests present are all notable figures, from famous food critic Lilian Bloom and her editor, to rich couple Richard and Anne Leibrandt, as well as movie star George Diaz and his assistant Felicity, and business partners Soren, Dave, and Bryce.

All of these characters have some sort of economic or social status that Mills clearly lacks. Bloom was the critic who first put Slowik on the map, while the Leibrandts are regulars at Hawthorn. Soren, Dave, and Bryce are backed by Doug Verrick, the angel investor who took over Hawthorn when Slowik was struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even Diaz’s assistant Felicity graduated from an Ivy League university with no student loans, reflecting her solid financial standing.

However, through his menu for the night, Slowik and his staff slowly destroy the guests’ expectations of special treatment and instead reveal what Slowik perceives as their wrongdoings—how each of them have contributed to his loss of passion for cooking or to the exploitation of artisans like him and his team. Through the “breadless bread plate,” Slowik references class history and how bread was historically eaten by common men, thus almost mocking the guests and their special social status. On the tortillas of his chicken tacos, Slowik has printed evidence of their misdeeds, including pictures of Richard cheating on Anne, restaurants that closed due to Bloom’s harsh criticisms, records of embezzlement committed by the three business partners, and Ledford taking pictures of the meals when Slowik explicitly forbade photography.

Amongst all the insane courses, Mills remains the grounding link to reality. While Ledford fawns over the genius of the breadless bread plate, Mills is unconvinced and argues that a bread course with no bread is ridiculous. Though Slowik critiques the pretentiousness and privilege of his guests, he too plays into the farce with his elaborate courses and monologues. However, Mills remains entirely separate from this world. Even Slowik employs her help in the dessert course and offers her a choice of dying with the staff or the guests, because he recognizes how she is in a similar position of being exploited.

It’s therefore through Mills’ understanding of Slowik that she is able to leave the island and become the sole survivor. Once she realizes she will die, she refuses to accept her doom—unlike Ledford, who willingly came to the island knowing he would die just because he wanted to participate in Slowik’s meal. Instead, Mills declares that she’s still hungry because none of the courses served were actual meals, and demands a cheeseburger from Slowik, recalling how he began his career as a cook in a fast food restaurant. With the cheeseburger, Margot essentially rejects all of Slowik’s extravagant symbolic courses and messaging in favor of a plain, simple yet filling meal; she thus helps Slowik remember the true purpose of food and his original passion for cooking.

Through Margot’s cheeseburger, The Menu demonstrates the power of passion and simplicity. Though the movie includes heavy critiques of the abuse of privilege, exploitation of workers, and the elitism associated with art, it also shows that there are other ways of enjoying art. While it may seem like a simple concept, The Menu serves up a reminder that food is first and foremost created to be eaten, and in a similar vein, art is created to be enjoyed, by everyone.

Categories: Column, Entertainment

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