This article is part of our coverage of the 2022 edition of Fantastic Fest, taking place from September 22-29. In this entry, we’re chatting with director Mark Mylod and producer Betsy Koch about their new fine-dining thriller, The Menu. Follow along with our reviews, interviews, and features from the fest in our Fantastic Fest archive.
I’ve never experienced fine dining, at least not at the tier presented in The Menu. Every restaurant I’ve ever gone to has handed me a list of options I meditate on earnestly, tasting each item in my imagination, burdened with the responsibility of choosing what I want. When the host hands you a menu, you accept partial responsibility for your satisfaction. At The Hawthorne, included in the $1,250/a head price tag is complete submission to Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). You defer to his genius, and he gives you transcendence on a plate.
Even though shows like Top Chef and Chef’s Table have piqued my curiosity for fine dining culture, the stakes of taking the equivalent of the average American’s mortgage payment and eating it are much too high. Enthusiasts may save up and splurge on an extravagant meal for a special occasion, but, for the most part, this rarified fare is exclusively for the über wealthy, to whom twelve hundred dollars means less.
Mark Mylod‘s The Menu represents this warp in value, where exclusivity obscures artistry and prices out human fallibility. When something costs an excessive amount, you are not just paying for the cuisine but also for sophistication, which is intangible and ineffable. To get what you’re paying for, it’s not enough to consume; you also have to understand it. When Chef Slowik feeds you, the meal will be worth the price. But will you be worthy of the meal?
That’s not to say I’m not a sucker for an exclusive experience. I love going to Fantastic Fest and taking a week off work to watch meticulously curated movies. I get to wear my little badge with written ‘press’ on it, an outward sign of my worthiness, and tromp through the ‘press only’ areas because special people like me are entitled to space. And I leave ordinary post-film Q & A’s to the plebes because I get access to one-on-one interviews with filmmakers such as director Mark Mylod and producer Betsy Koch.
I opened our conversation with some light fawning because I genuinely enjoyed The Menu, but then transitioned directly and transparently into seeking affirmation for my interpretation of the film. I asked Koch and Mylod what message or themes of Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s script compelled them to take on this project.
“I think for me, it sort of speaks to different levels of servitude and exploitation and all of those people that give their souls and bodies up for that,” Koch thoughtfully replied, “I think for [producer Adam] McKay if you asked him, he’s like, ‘this feels like a transfer of resources and power and money to the ultra-rich.’ And so people watch the movie thinking it’s ‘upending the rich,’ or ‘eat the rich,’ but there’s something deeper too.”
“I like the satire to speak for itself too… I hope it does.” Mylod hesitated slightly, “That’s one of the things I loved about the script. I didn’t feel like in the directing of it that I needed to hammer that [message] or put it in the foreground because it was layered in there, symbiotically linked to everything in the writing and in the storyline.”
“What we did evolve together, which I found really interesting and intriguing, and one of the scary things that drew me to it was this idea of the culpability of the diners,” he granted, “which led me to a massively pretentious reference of The Exterminating Angel. Where I watched that film, and just that sense of guilt, that sense of being part of the problem, part of the matrix, I thought was really fascinating.”
Mylod refers to the complicity of our participation in the artifice that elaborately but arbitrarily assigns value. The diners at Hawthorne each have their own motivations for eating a twelve-hundred-dollar meal, and none is bodily hunger. For the forsaken spouse (Judith Light), it is to compensate for the absence of intimacy from her husband (Reed Birney); for the investment bro (Arturo Castro), it’s a “fuck you to accounts;” for the food critic (Janet McTeer) it’s to validate her very existence. For these abstract ends, animals are slaughtered, service professionals are subjugated, and chefs forgo a family life for the kitchen’s heat. A lot of people sacrifice for what rich people eventually shit.
Throughout the film, the foodie (Nicholas Hoult) refers to Slowik’s meal as magical, like a spell that enchants you. If either party missteps – the chef errs, or the eater becomes cynical – the hex is broken, and all is for naught. It’s impossible not to draw parallels to the cinematic experience. We know that Ralph Fiennes is not, in fact, a chef. But we do have the odd expectation that he persuasively makes food on screen. The entire production team went to great lengths and expenses to ensure that professional chefs would not fault them for the more technical cooking sequences.
“We were absolutely obsessed,” Mylod confessed excitedly, “We brought in Dominique Crenn. First woman chef, I think possibly still the only female chef in the USA to have three Michelin stars, and she’s a total artist. Literally one of the best chefs in the world.” Crenn worked with the writers’ script to design the courses, then supervised what Mylod described as a “week-long boot camp” to ensure the cooking was executed convincingly. “At any point during the film, whatever anybody’s doing in the kitchen is exactly the thing they should be doing for that tasting menu. So, our obsession with authenticity was also pathological.”
There is something cloyingly ironic about watching The Menu at a film festival where everyone is wearing their status on a badge. Before each film, we are seated in order of our caste, shamed like school children into reverent attention with our cellphones “dark, silent, and out of sight,” and told that the 20% gratuity has already been added to our tabs, ‘you ungracious bastards.’ Then, once the film is complete, we stand in tight circles in the lobby and wax on about the nuances of the movie as we bend over backward to crawl up our own asses.
Despite using words like “obsession” and “pathological” to describe his filmmaking, Mylod found himself identifying less with the maniacal artiste, Slowik, and more with the out-of-place plus-one, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). While working on Game of Thrones, Mylod often went to fancy restaurants with showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss. “It would always be fun to go, and they’re delightful company obviously,” he shrugged, “but the restaurants themselves, that I’d always leave with this odd kind of tension and which stuck with me, and there was a sense of, what am I missing?”
He admitted reaching a catharsis directing an empowered outsider like Margot, “I dropped out of high school, basically. I never went to college, and when I first started in the British film and television industry, I felt that 90% of the people there were the smartest people in the world who all went to Oxbridge. So, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, I think, and always felt like the Margot in the room.”
Koch said that she understood where Margot was coming from but still appreciated an indulgent evening of wining and dining, “I mean, I too, gun to my head, would go cheeseburger for sure [like Margot]. But I also love going to restaurants like Hawthorne. I do not go to them often, but if I do go, it is such a lovely experience, and I do truly enjoy it. I do feel guilty, but I ultimately also feel so impressed by what these people are able to pull off truly day in and day out. It is so genuinely interesting from a creative standpoint to see artfully done food that tastes absolutely delicious. And so I’m a little bit of both, I think now. I used to be full-Margot; now I’m mostly Margot.”
“You’ve gone to the dark side,” Mylod teases. “I haven’t gone to the dark side yet.” She backfires.
They joke that fine dining is “the dark side,” as if there is an inherent evil in eating an expensive meal but expecting much more than some yummy flavors and a full belly is a lot like watching Star Wars. It is indulging in a fantasy that is not real. Every human being is entitled to a bit of fantasy now and then, but how much? And at what cost? And at whose expense?
When I tell my non-cinephile friends about Fantastic Fest, they ask if it’s worth it. In years past, I’ve always given a zealous ‘yes,’ but, this year, coming home with my very own case of Covid-19, I admit my ‘yes’ has caveats. After watching The Menu, I want to identify with Margot. She is more than the underdog with imposter syndrome, as Mylod described, and she is the only diner whose discerning nose catches the soupçon of bullshit and has the good sense not to put it in her mouth. Of course, we all would love to think of ourselves as Margot, but, like in the film, most of us are not.