When Food Becomes Vital to Onscreen Storytelling

You can learn a lot about a character from their taste buds.

Stoker Mia Wasikowska
Fox Searchlight Pictures

The act of eating can be so inexplicable when so many meal sequences in movies are set up only to have someone leave the scene soon after a measly helping of food. You know the drill: a nuclear household sits before a beautiful spread on a dining table. More often than not, protagonists go on their merry way despite never eating more than a single bite.

This is a presentation of faux normalcy that immediately undercuts the immersion of a given scene and it happens so often that it feels like a pointless gag. However, when the practice of preparing and eating food is used appropriately to symbolically amplify a narrative of any kind, it can add abundant depth and meaning.

That’s exactly what Jacob T. Swinney unpacks in his comprehensive video essay examining the significance of a good food scene. Through the use of key examples such as Phantom Thread, The Shape of Water, and The Florida Project, he dives deep into how this simple plot device can subliminally tell audiences something about a character’s disposition or even hint at an entire personal odyssey. Are we meant to admire a character, treat them like children, or relate to them based on their cooking abilities and tastes?

Feast your eyes on the video from Fandor below.

Swinney begins his video essay by appealing that, “I’m sure we all have a favorite food scene.” Definitely, and for me, that’s found in Park Chan-wook’s psychological thriller Stoker. Food makes up a prominent aspect of that film in general, supplementing the fascinating, violent coming-of-age of its protagonist, India. In Stoker, there are scenes involving eggs, which symbolize “new life and fertility” (according to Swinney) for the character as she blossoms into a young woman. Some set pieces include ice cream, although this childish food is tainted with enough of the movie’s dark secrets to shatter its illusion of innocence. But by far, the most effective food scene in Stoker focuses on India and her dashing but unnerving uncle Charlie in a quietly loaded face-off at the dinner table.

While the two eat with India’s mother Evelyn — and as the adults trade superficial stories about each other — India is the only one who finishes the succulent meal of red-tinged steak that Charlie prepares (she “practically licked it clean”). Her inner insatiability is strongly hinted at in this action and is compounded by her own blunt questions about Charlie’s mysterious identity. After Evelyn leaves the table, India examines a wine bottle — an emblem of adulthood — that Charlie reveals has a vintage of her birth year. He slides his own filled glass over to her, the sound edit ensuring that every minute sonic detail is amplified as India slowly takes her first gulp. Tension builds throughout their tête-à-tête, but we importantly witness India begin to assert herself and her amorphous desires once she consumes the wine.

In contrast to the revealing nature of subsistence in Stoker, David Cronenberg’s crime drama Eastern Promises uses food as part of a thinly veiled effort to camouflage ugly realities. The film’s antagonist, Semyon, hides his nefarious Russian mafia ties behind the cover of a successful restaurant. It is this ostensibly homey place into which he invites the film’s heroine, a midwife named Anna. Unbeknownst to Semyon, she is investigating the establishment’s connection to a 14-year-old girl who had died in childbirth.

Although his restaurant is closed for a private function, Semyon notably lets Anna in after discovering her own Russian roots. She walks into the fray of preparations for a sumptuous holiday feast and is treated to the excellent borscht — a sour beet soup tinged red like blood — that Semyon is making. And when she professes, “My dad made borscht just like that,” it affirms that lineage is important to personal identity in Eastern Promises. However, Semyon’s promise to cook for Anna again, in hopes of incentivizing her to return to him with key evidence from her case, backfires. This culturally significant meal seemed like the ideal opportunity to tether the two characters in some way, but Anna is smart enough to remain wary of Semyon’s shady behavior. Similarly, when the ranks of the mafia turn up to the feast a few hours later, they are only superficially bound by their banquet when their questionable activities (that viewers are privy to) cloud the proceeds.

Finally, Zal Batmanglij’s thriller The East uses food to indicate class separation as well as humanize fringe communities. Private intelligence operative Jane is chosen to infiltrate the eponymous anarchist group wreaking havoc on corrupt corporations. When we meet elites such as Jane’s well-to-do boss, they consume champagne and fancy desserts. In the meantime, Jane goes undercover as a local drifter in search for The East and experiences scavenging for food via dumpster diving. When she makes it into the fold of the covert ecologist organization, at last, a particularly striking dinner scene is game-changing for her and the audience.

“If you want to come to dinner, you wear this,” a sullen member of The East tells Jane, straitjacket in hand. They subsequently enter a quaint dining area where everyone — including their mysterious leader Benji — is similarly strapped up. Jane is the newbie and is thus asked to begin their simple meal, with Benji encouraging her that “there’s no wrong way” to eat. Unable to use her hands, she drags her bowl using her teeth and eats straight from it without the provided spoon. Jane then shockingly witnesses the rest of The East pick up the spoons in their mouths and take turns feeding one another. It isn’t fancy and seems self-righteous from Jane’s point-of-view, but the group’s intimacy is undeniably palpable.

Hence, food can be one of the most revealing of character traits on screen. When I watch a noteworthy eating or preparation scene, numerous questions come to mind. What is a character consuming? How are they doing it; that is, are they using utensils (and are these utensils fancy) or digging in with their hands? When and where do these scenes occur? As a device that’s intrinsically linked to sustenance and nourishment, food is one of the most effective ways to convey character as well as plot development. They can, even for a split second, tell micro-narratives and set up premises naturally, evocatively, and powerfully. Whether or not it looks especially appetizing, meals are an exceptional window into the soul.

Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Curator of daily stuff and things here at Film School Rejects.