OIn film, food usually shows love. Whether it’s the love of the bodily variety or the family one, preparing and eating a good meal on screen is valuable and often delicious-looking shorthand. As in real life, there is nothing more intimate, or more revealing of one’s personality, than cooking for someone else.
Regardless of the purpose, depicting food on screen is a sensual experience. It’s not called “food porn” for nothing, folks.
In honor of Frederick Wiseman’s delightful four-hour French restaurant documentary “Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros” (now playing) and the delightful period romance about French chefs “The Taste of Things” (opening on St. Valentine’s Day), here are some other movies that prove that the best way to viewers’ hearts is through their stomachs.
Babette’s Party (1987)
This Oscar-winning Danish film, based on a story by Isak Dinesen (Meryl Streep played him in “Out of Africa”), takes place in Jutland. This is the same part of Denmark seen in this year’s Promised Land. A century after Mads Mikkelsen’s character fought the land to make it arable in that film, Parisian refugee Babette (Stéphane Audran) arrives at the home of two pious sisters, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Filippa (Bodil Kjer), offering to cook in return. for accommodation. Due to the demands of their Protestant father, the sisters have renounced marriage and now avoid most simple pleasures, which they consider sinful. Once Babette arrives, their little community begins to blossom and break free. The transformation starts with the chef making small adjustments to the local dishes to make them tastier.
Fourteen years later, Babette makes a small fortune and decides to thank everyone by funding a real French dinner. It turns out that Babette was the head chef of a famous French restaurant in her previous life, and she hasn’t forgotten how to get down in the kitchen. The preparation of this seven-course meal – the titular event – is lovingly depicted in glorious detail by director Gabriel Axel. Plus, there’s a great fantasy sequence where the sisters imagine how literally sinful and diabolical all this decadent food can be. Does not matter! The food seems good enough to risk life imprisonment. (For Max, Criterion)
The Big Night (1996)
Stanley Tucci co-wrote and co-directed this film (with Campbell Scott) and also stars as Secondo, the younger brother of Tony Shalhoub’s Primo. They are Italian immigrant chefs who run a restaurant in my beloved state of New Jersey. The pair are purists, but their customers commit mortal sins against their dishes by asking for pasta as a side dish to their risotto. (Just don’t. Trust me.) Their restaurant rival, Pascal (Ian Holm, never better), convinces the brothers to cook a delicious meal to entice Louis Prima to dine at their bistro. Bite your teeth in the ass of life! Pascal advises, a line I still say to this day.
This is the film that introduced the tympanum for viewers who unwisely tried to replicate the complex and incredibly wonderful pasta dish in their own kitchens. As much as the preparation of that dish entices the viewer, the most memorable meal in “The Big Night” is the simple omelette that ends the film. Prepared in real time by Secondo, this beautiful and silent act speaks volumes about showing love through the art of cooking. (On Hoopla, AppleTV+)
Best Friends (1990)
Of course, this is not a “food movie” in the conventional sense. But think again! You may have forgotten that sequence where Paul Sorvino’s Paulie creates meals for his friends while they’re incarcerated. Martin Scorsese’s close-up of Paulie shaving garlic with a razor is cringe-worthy (and dangerous – how many people lost their fingertips trying this at home?!). Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) describes how the dinner was so big for these men made in prison. There was always a pasta dish and meat or fish. Perfectionist Paulie oversees the preparations. I want to go to a prison that serves fresh lobster and thick steaks. Even cooked on hot plates, the meals still look better than standard prison bread. (On AppleTV+, Prime Video)
Although I really enjoyed this movie, I still can’t get over the absolutely disgusting idea that a mouse prepared my food. (Sorry, Remy!) So let’s talk about Anton Egon (Peter O’Toole), the evil food critic who takes a bite of the titular vegetable concoction and is transported back to his childhood. This visual is one of the greatest interpretations of the transformative power of food. The dish brought Anton to tears. This caused this critic to lose one as well. But ewww, mice in my kitchen?! Only, no. (On Disney+)
Like Water for Chocolate (1992)
Passion enters the equation here with this adaptation of Laura Esquivel’s novel. Poor Tita (Lumi Cavazos) loves Pedro (Marco Leonardi) but cannot marry him due to family obligations. So he marries her sister to stay in Tita’s life. Tita channels all her emotions – anger, sadness, lust – into the dishes she cooks for the family. Everyone who eats her dishes responds in the same way. A cut of quail made with rose petals, given to him by Pedro, makes the diners hot as hell; the tears falling on Pedro’s wedding cake batter make the whole wedding sad. And so on. Emotions are as ripe as delicious food. Melodrama goes well with any dish. (On Paramount+, AppleTV+)
The granddaddy of all food porn movies! Juzo Itami’s genre-defying masterpiece is a series of vignettes that incorporate some of the elements I’ve already mentioned: gangsters, failed restaurants, rich dishes, and raw emotions. A cook named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) becomes a makeshift food critic in training, tasting ramen at other restaurants in order to perfect her ramen recipe.
The food preparation is rendered to perfection with an enthusiasm that is infectious. Food is used as training material, object of critical analysis and, in the film’s most famous scene, foreplay. Viewers whose eardrums stuck to kitchen ceilings and required stitches after trying Paulie’s garlic chops could now try to get an egg yolk from their mouth to their lover’s without breaking it. now that sounds doable. (For Max, Criterion)
Here’s one for cynics like me. Love is the last thing shown by the food in this film. Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), assisted by maitre d’ Elsa (a wonderful Hong Chau) invites a group of lucky people to dine on his island. The chef’s reputation guarantees a once-in-a-lifetime meal. The food looks just as good as any other movie on this list, but it’s dressed up in a plate of revenge that’s figuratively (and sometimes literally) served cold. The result is the last supper of more than one character. (For Hulu, Max)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe’s film critic.