Two films with food mysticism (spoiler alert!)

A blogger’s complaints about foodies put me in mind of a couple of award-winning and actually quite good movies I saw recently about food and drink as religion, Sideways and Babette’s Feast.

Sideways is set in present-day California. It’s about confused people with sordid lives for whom wine gives access to transcendent reality, or at least a reality that’s real and has genuine value. I called it a good movie but the people’s way of life is too repellent and the filmmakers seem too much a part of the world they portray to deserve that completely. It does suggest the role the foodie outlook can play for people though.

I agree with the blogger that a lot of young people are absurdly serious about high-end or anyway non-industrial food, and it’s taken on an element of status-seeking, but it’s not just pretense and display. You can’t have hypocrisy unless there’s real faith somewhere, and real faith always answers a need and has some sort of basis. Food is real, it answers a basic need, it puts us in touch with natural materials and human skill, and composing flavors and textures can be an art just as much as composing sounds or shapes and colors.

That last point is part of the message of the second movie, which is set among the aging members of a small Protestant sect in a remote village in 19th century Denmark. Because of odd circumstances the deceased founder’s unmarried daughters take on the (former) greatest chef in Paris as their unpaid servant girl, and she cooks for them, on a shoestring but with the same persistence and skill she had back home. So all the impoverished shut-ins to whom the sisters take food suddenly find their lives improve, and the sisters actually save money on the deal. After 10 years on the job Great Chef/Servant Girl wins 10,000 francs in a lottery and blows it all on the ingredients for a dinner for 12 honoring the founder’s 100th birthday. A good time is had by all.

The movie is a comparison between two religions, sectarian Protestantism and Art (e.g., the art of cooking). The idea seems to be that neither really works in the long run but they supplement each other when they’re brought together, which never happens except in movies with weird plot devices. There’s a soliloquy at the end that attempts to reconcile everything no matter what, but it’s a bit too vague to work, and the guy delivering it had just had a fabulous meal with a lot of (also fabulous) wine, so what he says can’t be counted on as cold stone truth.

The movie does suggest that the life of the Protestant sectarian wears a bit better than that of the artist or at least that of the artistic devotee. The Great Chef decides to stay in the village, apparently because people and lives turn out badly in Paris and her art does more good among the sectarians. They were getting pretty cranky before the dinner put them into a good mood with each other, and then they reconciled, whereas her devoted patrons in Paris included the general who had her husband and son executed during the Commune and tried to get her shot as well.

1 thought on “Two films with food mysticism (spoiler alert!)”

  1. I haven’t seen Sideways,
    I haven’t seen Sideways, though I did see an amusing movie about the California wine industry a few years back, called Bottle Shock, set at the time when California wines won in a blind taste test competition in France, which of course infuriated the French… Twas most amusing. No great moral lessons, there, either; a good performance by Alan Rickman, always a delight.


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