On film, food usually shows love. Whether it’s love of the carnal variety or the familial one, the preparation and consumption of a good meal onscreen is a valuable, and quite often delicious-looking, shorthand. Just as in real life, there’s nothing more intimate, or revealing of one’s personality, than cooking for someone else.
No matter the intention, the depiction of food onscreen is a sensual experience. It’s not called “food porn” for nothing, folks.
In honor of Frederick Wiseman’s delectable four-hour French-restaurant documentary “Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros” (playing now) and the sumptuous period romance about French chefs, “The Taste of Things” (opening on Valentine’s Day), here are some other movies that prove the best way to viewers’ hearts is through their stomachs.
Babette’s Feast (1987)
This Oscar-winning Danish film, based on a story by Isak Dinesen (Meryl Streep played her in “Out of Africa”), takes place in Jutland. That’s the same part of Denmark seen in this year’s “The Promised Land.” One century after Mads Mikkelsen’s character fought the land to make it farmable 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 exchange for lodging. Due to the demands of their Protestant father, the sisters have foregone marriage and now avoid most simple pleasures, which they deem sinful. Once Babette arrives, their small community starts to thrive and loosen up. The transformation begins with the chef making minor adjustments to local dishes to make them more palatable.
Fourteen years later, Babette comes into a small fortune and decides to thank everyone by financing a genuine French dinner. Turns out Babette was the lead chef of a famous French restaurant in her former life, and she hasn’t forgotten how to throw down in the kitchen. The preparation of this seven-course meal — the titular event — is lovingly depicted in glorious detail by director Gabriel Axel. As a plus, there’s a great fantasy sequence where the sisters imagine just how literally sinful and hellish all this decadent food might be. No matter! The food looks good enough to risk eternal damnation. (On Max, Criterion)
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’re Italian immigrant chefs who run a restaurant in my beloved state of New Jersey. The duo are purists, but their customers commit mortal sins against their dishes by asking for pasta as a side dish for risotto. (Just don’t do it. Trust me.) Their restaurant rival, Pascal (Ian Holm, never better), convinces the brothers to make a fancy meal to entice Louis Prima to dine at their bistro. “Bite your teeth into the ass of life!” Pascal advises, a line I still say to this day.
This is the movie that introduced the timpano to viewers who unwisely attempted to replicate the complex and incredibly gorgeous pasta dish in their own kitchens. As much as the preparation of that dish entices the viewer, the most memorable food item in “Big Night” is the simple omelet that ends the film. Prepared in real time by Secondo, this beautiful, silent act speaks volumes about showing love through the art of cooking. (On Hoopla, AppleTV+)
Obviously, this isn’t 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 cronies while they’re incarcerated. Martin Scorsese’s closeup of Paulie shaving garlic with a razor blade is swoon-worthy (and dangerous — how many folks lost fingertips trying this at home?!). Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) describes how dinner was such a big deal for these made men 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 delivers fresh lobsters and thick steaks. Even cooked on hot plates, the meals still look better than standard-issue prison gruel. (On AppleTV+, Prime Video)
Though I really enjoyed this movie, I still can’t get past the absolutely disgusting idea that a rat prepared my food. (Sorry, Remy!) So, let’s talk about Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole), the mean ol’ food critic who takes a bite of the titular vegetable concoction and is transported back to his childhood. That visual is one of the greatest interpretations of the transformative power of food. The dish made Anton shed a tear. It made this mean ol’ critic shed one, too. But ewww, rats in my kitchen?! Just, 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 can’t marry him due to familial obligations. So he marries her sister in order to stay in Tita’s life. Tita channels all her emotions — rage, sadness, lust — into the dishes she cooks for the family. Everyone who consumes her dishes responds in kind. A quail entrée made with rose petals given to her by Pedro makes the diners horny as hell; the tears that fall into Pedro’s wedding-cake batter make the entire wedding party sad. And so on. The emotions are as ripe as the food is delicious. Melodrama goes well with any dish. (On Paramount+, AppleTV+)
The grandfather of all food-porn movies! Juzo Itami’s genre-defying masterpiece is a series of vignettes that incorporate several elements I’ve already mentioned: gangsters, failing restaurants, rich dishes, and raw emotions. A chef named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) becomes an impromptu food critic in training, tasting ramen at other restaurants in order to make her ramen recipe better.
The food preparation is impeccably rendered with an enthusiasm that’s infectious. Food is used as training material, the subject of critical analysis, and, in the film’s most famous scene, foreplay. Viewers whose timpano wound up stuck to their kitchen ceilings or who required stitches after trying Paulie’s garlic slicing could now attempt to pass an egg yolk from their mouth to their lover’s without breaking it. Now that sounds doable. (On Max, Criterion)
The Menu (2022)
Here’s one for cynics like me. Love is the last thing shown by the food in this movie. Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), aided by his maitre d’ Elsa (a terrific 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 as good as it does in every other movie on this list, but it’s plated with a side dish of revenge that’s figuratively (and sometimes literally) a dish served cold. The result is more than one character’s last supper. (On Hulu, Max)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.