A few years ago, I was asked to sit on the dissertation committee of a young woman whose academic obsession was cannibal movies and their place in the culture. I still don't know as much about Lacanian theory as I probably should, but as it turned out I had seen a lot of cannibal movies — not just the obvious ones like "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," but the films like "Delicatessen" and "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover" that spent most of their time in art houses, grinder classics like "I Drink Your Blood," and implicitly every zombie, vampire and grisly horror movie ever made. Have you ever seen Larry Cohen's "The Stuff"? You really should.
In movies, food is rarely just food — it is a way of signaling obsession and atavism, consumption and desire. It is hard to interpret the flash of a knife as the portent of a really well-made brunoise onscreen; the combination of rabbit and stockpot does not equal fricassee. Even Nancy Meyers' happy kitchens are foodie abattoirs in their way.
Here are some food movies I like, ones without a smidgen of human flesh on a plate.
Can we can agree that "Tampopo" is the greatest food movie ever made? It kind of is: a film where the ramen and ketchup omelets may represent all kinds of obsessiveness but are also pretty clearly noodles and eggs. "Udon" is only the second-greatest noodle movie ever made, and director Yuki Motohiro lays rom-com tropes over the plot like gaudy fishcakes over a steaming bowl. But you see a whole lot of Sanuki udon along the way, and the hunger you feel at the end is not for puppy love.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”
If you have been wondering whether Jiro Ono is the best sushi chef in Tokyo, you are not alone. I have never been able to score a seat at his Sukiyabashi Jiro, nor at Sushi Saito, usually mentioned as the main competitor. But director David Gelb makes a vivid case for Jiro, his fixation on tradition, and the stunning way that a sliver of fish settles onto rice.
The film is named for a Jean-François Millet painting of peasant women scrounging for grain in an already-harvested field. France in 1857 was not quite ready for Millet's ennobling of the poor. Agnès Varda's demi-documentary follows a band of latter-day gleaners, becomes a freegan manifesto, then drifts into meditations on the meaning of heart-shaped potatoes. If I had this on DVD, I would watch it twice a week.
“The Exterminating Angel”
Hell, I have often imagined, is an endless dinner party, surrounded by handsome but vapid people, eating fashionable things that must have seemed clever on paper but are vile on the plate. In Luis Buñuel's surreal opus, the party is quite eternal — the guests, but not the servants, find themselves unable to leave — and the menu includes honeyed organ meats.
“The Bakery Girl of Monceau”
The cookies are not good. The woman behind the counter is sweet. He cannot love her, because his heart belongs to a woman he bumped into on the street once, but he comes back to the shop again and again, just to have something to do. Is he a stalker? Kind of, he realizes. Éric Rohmer squeezes quite a lot of life and pastry into this 22-minute short.
“Christmas in Connecticut”
Some food movies are about cooking. "Christmas in Connecticut," which stars Barbara Stanwyck as a magazine cookery columnist, is about not-cooking instead — she can't cook, she has neither a family nor a country house, and the publisher has invited himself to one of the homey Christmas dinners she keeps writing about. The foodiest of all the screwball comedies — the drinkiest still belongs to "The Thin Man" — and always swell.
“Killer of Sheep”
In a way, Charles Burnett's masterpiece is as famous for not being famous as it is for anything else. It is often on lists of the all-time best American films, but it wasn't released until nearly 30 years after it was made. The battered VHS tape I own was passed down like samizdat. And the movie, about the family life of a man who works in a Watts slaughterhouse, is about the brutal effects of the food system, not quite about food. But there is love hidden behind the pain, and beauty bubbles through the frustration. Nothing has ever expressed the grim loveliness of Los Angeles nearly so well.
“The Secret of the Grain”
If I am ever lucky enough to visit a makeshift floating restaurant near Marseilles — might one really exist? — I would consider myself extremely fortunate if the couscous were as lovingly seasoned with love, strife and family as it is in the gorgeous, glistening meal at the end of this film. Abdellatif Kechiche is probably more famous for "Blue is the Warmest Color" — naked women still trump couscous, even in this food-obsessed era.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Is the star of Wes Anderson's movie Ralph Fiennes? Pretty much. He's on the screen most of the time, and he was nominated for a Golden Globe. But you and I both know that the real star of the film was the courtesans au chocolat from Mendel's down in the village, vivid stacks of cream puffs arranged in pink pasteboard boxes.
Love and canned pineapples.