Tuesday, April 29, 2008
The most recent film to celebrate the joys of cooking and the ability of food to feed the soul is the animated Ratatouille . A rodent with five star culinary aspirations is the main ingredient in Brad Bird's latest animated concoction. Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is a French country rat with dreams of being a chef. Remy is blessed-or cursed some might say-with an exquisite sense of smell and taste. The film displays a love for food and the ability for a good meal to warm the soul. Peter O'Toole voices the snobbish critic Anton Ego who gets more than he bargained for from little Remy's cooking. In fact the scene in which Ego samples Remy's ratatouille is the single best moment in the film. It rivals the moment when the Grinch's heart grows three sizes too big in the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
A rodent with mad cooking skillz in Ratatouille, now on DVD. (Disney/Pixar)
The kitchen scenes -- rendered with dazzling state of the art technology and breathtaking tracking shots of Remy -- are delightful. And that brings me to my list of DVDs that provide a perfect cinematic supplement to Ratatouille . At the top of the list is the BBC kitchen comedy Chef! from which Ratatouille seems to have borrowed a number of its characters. Chef! is the brainchild of Lenny Henry who also plays Gareth Blackstock, "the finest chef in England, possibly the world." Gareth is a hilariously conceited but brilliant chef. Take a sample of his astringent verbal skills: "Somebody bring me a knife, very long and razor sharp. I need to castrate the person who made this sauce and I don't want to cause any unnecessary suffering. I'm not a vindictive man, I'm not out to cause pain, but with this man's DNA in the gene pool, humanity is doomed." Or "please re-arrange the contents of this plate so that someone in the latest stages of malnutrition will at least take a passing interest in it." This show offers gourmet comedy for two of its three seasons.
Chef! (BBC) versus Ratatouille (Disney/Pixar) kitchen staffs.
Now there are some films that just provide teasing appetizers, like the inn scene in Tom Jones between Albert Finney and Joyce Redman where eating oysters turns into a kind of foreplay or in The Godfather when Clemenza tries to teach Michael how to cook spaghetti. In Italian/American Martin Scorsese asks his mom to demonstrate her spaghetti recipe and then includes the actual instructions in the end credits.
Mostly Martha pits a by the book German chef against a free-spirited Italian. (Paramount Classics)
Then there are main course films in which food and cooking figure prominently. Mostly Martha , which was just remade as No Reservations , mixes a by-the-book German chef and a freewheeling Italian for a tasty romance. The Big Night (which is screening as the first film in teh Culinary & Cinema Series) focuses on a failing Italian restaurant banking everything on a single meal whereas in Pieces of April Katie Holmes is just looking for a working oven in which to cook the turkey before her family arrives for Thanksgiving. Cooks of varying skills are at the heart of the tender Taiwan drama Eat Drink Man Woman and the wacky Hong Kong comedy God of Cookery. And of course there's the sensual delights whipped up by the cooking in Mexico's Like Water for Chocolate .
And for dessert there's the delicious pairing of Juliet Binoche and Johnny Depp in Chocolat or the everlasting, gobstopping Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Babette preparing her mouth-watering feast. (Orion)
But if I had to pick the most satisfying food film of all time, it would have to be Denmark's Babette's Feast . This exquisitely simple tale focuses on a French woman, Babette, who becomes the maid, housekeeper, and cook for a frugal Danish family. When Babette comes into some money she insists on making an elaborate meal for the villagers who pride themselves on their ascetic lifestyle. And for wine lovers, there's a different wine for each course (and if memory serves me, there's even a Chateau D'Yquem, the "nectar of the gods," as my husband likes to say.) The glorious way in which the food transforms the dinner guests is something to savor. This is a cinematic meal you can truly be thankful for.
If you have any favorite food films, add them to the menu.