Has there ever been a truly great film about food? This is a question that was put towards me one day at work, and it gave me a great deal of food for thought (sorry). My mind immediately jumped to the likes of Ratatouille and Chocolat, but then I struggled. And are those films really great films ABOUT food? How does one even begin to determine how a film is really about food. I’ve come to the conclusion that a film about food is one that explores the influence of food, the power of food to bring people together, food as a form of expression, and food as a means of making the audience feel incredibly inadequate in the kitchen (something an animated rat did very well). In a sheer matter of coincidence, this last week has seen me consume two films that are most definitely about food, but in quite different ways, more so than their surfaces would suggest, Jon Favreau’s Chef and Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox. Feast your eyes on my thoughts below:   

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Chef (Dir: Jon Favreau)

Debuting at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, Chef seemed to cook up a storm among-st the judges and patrons at the Indie cinema event. With big name stars and Favreau returning to more Indie-fare following his foray into blockbuster (his last, Cowboys and Aliens, is best forgotten), this did have the ingredients for a rather tasty slice of Hollywood indie cinema (I can’t promise that the food puns will stop). And for the most part, Favreau succeeds, but with the amount of favours he seems to have definitely swayed, it’s hard to look at this as a piece of indie cinema. It is hardly original, and it is never going to stand out to anyone as one of the highlights of the year. But when it comes to the food, it may be hard to find another film this year that gets the stomach rumbling quite as much as this one.

Favreau plays restaurant chef Carl Casper (Favreau), who after making an impression in his youth on the shores of Miami, has become trapped repeating the same menu at a beloved restaurant in Los Angeles. When he is met with the chance to impress an intimidating online food blogger (Oliver Platt), Carl aims to produce something new and unique, only to have his opportunity taken away by his reluctant restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman). After a very public outburst, Carl’s reputation is left in tatters. But from the ashes of his ruined career, Carl grasps the chance to finally cook the food he wants to cook when he takes to travelling across America in a used food truck. He also uses his new found time to truly connect with his estranged son (Emjay Anthony).

Before discussing Chef as a film about food, allow me to speak in broader, more general terms. Favreau has made a film so laid back and easy-going that it almost conveys a sense that it couldn’t give a damn if you liked it or not, everyone involved had a fun time making it, why don’t you let yourself have the same courtesy. It is the kind of movie that is almost impossible to buy into any credibility or reality due to the number of recognizable faces and how quite convenient every development seems to be for Carl. It is an easy-going spirit that works both for and against the film. It’s easy entertainment, but when a film takes 45 minutes to truly get a plot into gear, you know you’re in the realm of self-indulgence. And as Carl embarks upon his journey of finally fulfilling his culinary dreams, we know we are firmly in territory that has been trodden before, and trodden better, if not as breezily.

Chef, ironically enough, is very much an embodiment of the kind of food that it mocks. Carl, tired of hashing out the same old menu again and again, aims to find inspiration in Cuban style food, and the results are quite mouth-watering. Chef very much focuses on food as a form of expression and artistry. Favreau as a filmmaker clearly saves the more thoughtful photography for scenes in which Carl plates up numerous appetising dishes. And, boy, are they mouth-watering. A great deal of thought and design has gone into the execution of these dishes. Carl wants to find a better means of expression, and while I have sincere doubts that cooking Cuban food in a Food Truck is the best means of finding the artistry within, it is the culture and history of the food, and the different American landscapes in which we find them whicht provides the film with a personality.Chef

Chef incorporates social networking effectively, providing a platform for Carl’s food and an avenue in which for him and his son Percy to connect. In this way, food is also used as an expression of connectivity, on both a personal and on a wider network, displaying how one can share their talents and personalities in an easy to be embraced fashion in the modern world. Chef isn’t particularly enlightening in this case (that is the point of social networking after all), but it is nice to see a film tap in to social networking in a much more organic way than anything I’ve seen in modern cinema.

A tasty treat with some quite artful, lip-smacking photography in regards to its delicious dishes. Otherwise though, Chef, while charming, offers very little in the way of unique treats. 3/5 

 

 Lunchbox-PosterThe Lunchbox (Dir: Ritesh Batra)

Very much on the other end of the spectrum is Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox. A piece of Indian cinema with a little more Western sensibility, Batra presents a very cultured look at the mundane and closed lives of an Accountant and a Housewife in Mumbai. Using the ‘dabbawalas’ (a highly complicated system of lunch delivery, picking up lunches from restaurants and/or homes to take to the work place) as a plot mechanism, this humorous drama is very much about how food can allow people to connect, striking a much more human and sincere tone to that of Chef. 

Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a young and bored housewife, who is desperately seeking some attention from her negligent husband. She aims to do so through her culinary skills, making him a pack lunch with cooking advice from her Auntie who lives above her. But after a mix-up, her lovingly-crafted lunch is delivered to the wrong man. It ends up in the possession of Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a lonely accountant who is nearing an early retirement. This lunch though sparks something within him, a curiosity and a desire to engage with others in a way he has not felt in years. With the lunches still ending up in Saajan’s possession, Ila and Saajan begin writing letters to each other, and soon a relationship that neither expected begins to form.

The Lunchbox does not revolve around food in quite the same capacity of Chef. The food here plays a part in bringing the characters together but then allows for a more genuine and affecting connection to be formed through the letters that Ila and Saajan communicate with. The food itself is much more understated than what Favreau plates up, and if anything this food seems more appealing. We see how characters react to the food presented to them and wish to share in the joy that it brings to them. It is almost as if we can catch the aromas emminating off the screen; the food is that inviting, which allows us to engage much more with the character’s relationships.

The Lunchbox offers a unique cultural glance into the city lifestyle of Mumbai, demonstrating how food is both a means of expression, connection and as a signifier of a certain culture. Be it through its inclusion of the lunchbox delivery service (something I persoanlly was not aware existed) or in how the different generations live their lives, this film is a unique, yet wholly universal, glimpse into Indian culture that is a delight to behold. The script deftly see-saws between moments of rib-tickling humour, to quite profound moments of tragic drama, be it big or small events. Batra presents a wholly unusual romance that flourishes initially due to both of the individuals involved are both desperately lonely Lunchbox, eager for a new connection to remind that they are indeed living breathing human beings who a worth a damn. It is a connection that does grow and allows both of them to reflect on where they are and where they are going in life.

While at times the film is not as subtle as it thinks it is, there is no denying that this is one of the best balanced screenplays I have come across for quite sometime. Every image and gesture seems carefully placed and delicately articulated, never drowned out in too obvious imagery, or too complicated for that matter. The hustle and bustle of Mumbai is also aptly conveyed, allowing for Ila and Saajan to feel as though they belong to a world that truly exists.

A genuine, heartfelt, and nourishing tale of love found in the most unlikely of ways. The Lunchbox is a film of rare emotion, laughs, and delectable delights, and will not leave your memory in much of a hurry. 4/5 

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