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How ‘The Menu’ Explores Ego and Exploitation in Fine Dining

[This story contains spoilers from Searchlight’s .]

In The menuthe signature experience presented by the remote Hawthorn destination restaurant is as much about who is there as it is about the meticulously crafted dishes.

As Ralph Fiennes chef Julian Slowik eventually reveals, it’s because of what the curated tasting menu explores: the corrosiveness of hunger—for power, relevance, money, love, and more—within all its diners gathered for a single night. final.

“We skew them. They had a pretty rough night,” director Mark Mylod said of the film’s detachment from what lured guests into Hawthorn’s deathtrap. “But to be honest, I never intended to eat the rich. For me, the story was a genuine character study of flawed people. It was really a genuine exploration of why they behave this way. Why are they there? What choices have they made? How have their egos and entitlements brought us to this place and them to take this bait in terms of their own ideologies?

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Hand-picked for the event and each representing a different version of moral decay and (abrasive) privilege, diners include an affluent couple, a food critic and her editor, a foodie and a sex worker, three tech bros and a failure. actor along with his assistant.

The cast of Searchlight's The Menu

Hawthorn dinner guests at The menu

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

“We talked about, ‘What are the archetypes of people who would really be at a restaurant like Hawthorn? These are the tech-rich guys, the luminaries of the food world,” said producer Betsy Koch. the hollywood reporter at the New York premiere. “We had the idea because Will Tracy, the writer of this movie along with Seth Reiss – he’s a big foodie. He goes to a lot of these restaurants. It’s like you can literally map out the different people that are around you.”

It’s a group not limited, as actress Hong Chau points out, by the literal “black and white way” in which Hollywood has traditionally talked “about the haves and have-nots.”

“It’s not just pointing the finger at the old white man because that’s too simplistic and reductive. There are so many people from all walks of life who occupy privileged spaces,” he said. “I love that John Leguizamo is the one playing the aging movie star and tech brothers, who could easily have been just three jock white guys.”

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Throughout the evening, the people in this group must confront their own “sins,” as the director describes them: the conclusion, Mylod says, of the chef’s “mea culpa” six months earlier.

“This is a character who, when we meet him, is absolutely overwhelmed and drowning in self-hatred, and trying to get out with some kind of explosion, but also on a moral level, paradoxically, to atone for his own corroded ego and for his abuse of his own power”, said the director. He is trying to atone for his sins the best he can. Obviously he can’t, but the least he can do is own them.”

ralph fiennes

Ralph Fiennes in The menu

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

According to Fiennes, for his chef who gave himself over to feeding his own ego, his is a journey about the tension between “an obsessive-compulsive narcissist” who seeks perfection and moral clarity.

“He’s someone who started out with very pure aspirations about how you make food or how you get food to people, and I think he hates himself because he’s obviously a genius, but he’s allowed himself to get very remote,” the actor explained. “What I liked was the complication. He doesn’t like what he’s doing. He doesn’t like where he has gone. There’s a real contradiction within him that he wants power and control, but on a deeper level, he despises himself for it.”

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It’s not just that desire for adulation and authority that has brought him and his guests to this moment. As viewers learn, he was involved in harassing a subordinate, a sous chef named Katherine (Christina Brucato), who is revealed to have conceived of the twisted concept and explosive finale to the night.

“With the gender dynamic in the kitchen, we wanted Katherine to talk about what it’s like to be a young woman trying to navigate an incredibly male-dominated industry. How difficult it is day after day just to perform at that level and have so much pressure on you,” Koch explained.

This thread is one of the most direct connections to diners and the film’s broadest exploration of the fine dining genre. An aging wealthy man whose dark secret is the nature of his serious infidelity, Reed Birney’s Richard had previously subjected another of the night’s attendees to harm through his sexual behavior.

The two men are responsible for his bad behavior, but in remarkably different ways, with the latter ultimately being forced to lose his ring finger. For Birney, Julian’s decision to take responsibility in the face of Richard’s responsibility goes beyond the chef’s connection to low-paid service workers. “Guys of my generation, when they misbehave, get away with it for a long time,” he said. “The first impulse is to deny, and maybe the younger generation is somehow conditioned to come clean.”

John Leguizamo

John Leguizamo in The menu

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

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George played by John Leguizamo is an aging action star inspired by Steven Seagal, who has lost his artistic authenticity amid waning industry interest and control over his career. It’s something Julian, both present and future, can identify with and fear.

“Everyone has something toxic about them and one of their bad qualities is narcissism. He is vain and that is part of his downfall. One of the reasons he’s there is to show off. He’s there to suck the oxygen out,” Leguizamo said, before pointing out how his character’s “sins” are slightly different than the other men in the room. “The other guys are really despicable, but this guy, you feel a little sorry because he’s a failure. He’s a failed action star and there’s something very sad and tragic about someone being at the top of his career and then not anymore.”

While the movie has plenty of bad men, it doesn’t limit its critical eye to the privileges and abuses of one genre. The film also features several women, all of whom have earned their seats at the table. Judith Light, who plays Richard’s wife Anne, sees her character as a woman desperately clinging to her “self-esteem, her place in the world, her entitlement, her wealth and the kind of lifestyle she thinks wants to have”.

“We allow ourselves not to talk, not to say anything,” Light said of the female diners, with the exception of one. “[Anya Taylor-Joy’s Margot] she took back what a lot of the other women let go of, but what they felt they wanted.”

Light notes that there is a connection and camaraderie that develops between these women, despite class and other distinctions. For Anne, it leads to an understanding that sees her somehow “taking back the power of her” from her. But ultimately, just like men, these women’s entitlement and inability to lift their own fingers serve as their downfall.

“They do behaviors that to think I’ll get them what they want,” Light said. “But everyone in the movie, as Anya said, is hungry. They have wants, needs, hungers that they can’t solve the way they’ve always tried to solve them.

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judith light

Judith light on The menu

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

While that hunger lives both literally and metaphorically inside the Hawthorn front of the house, The menu he is also interested in exploring hunger and power through the back of the house. It’s a place that, as Katherine’s story reveals, is also rife with toxicity, fueled by powerful men like Slowik and those willing to work in a place that consumes them in more ways than one.

“We all have tremendous anxiety related to perfectionism and the industries that I think promote the highest level of perfectionism are full of satire and horror because people forget about themselves,” said Ethan Tobman, The menu’s production designer. “All they want is for the chef to promote them, notice them, and they resent it when he takes their ideas and makes them his own.”

This drive and desperation to rise to power within the culinary world at great personal cost manifests itself in a series of shocking moments involving Hawthorn’s kitchen staff. In one sequence, Slowik’s deputy, Elsa (Chau), literally fights Taylor-Joy’s Margot to the death to remain what actress Chau calls the chef’s “ride or die.”

“I wanted to make sure my character Elsa felt like she was incredibly smart and capable and took pride in what she did. I saw her as a campaign manager for a political candidate. She was so proud of what they had accomplished and achieved together and would not let anything get in the way of her,” she said. “There’s something very deep about it, even though it’s a fight scene and an entertaining action scene.”

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For The menu team, exploring the hunger and corrosiveness that permeates the entire culinary ecosystem was one of their ultimate goals.

“The toxicity in the kitchen that is talked about in the industry hierarchy is also a reaction to the toxicity of customers and how they react to the food,” Tobman noted.

Ralph Fiennes and Hong Chao

Ralph Fiennes and Hong Chau in The menu

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

“One thing that we want people to understand when they see this movie is the different levels of servitude and exploitation and what it is like in an industry like this – to see people who give their body and soul to this type of work,” said producer Koch. additional. “We almost wanted to involve the audience in a way to take a closer look at their own behavior.”

The menu it’s in theaters now.

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