November 4, 2010


Appetite for Disrobement

In this summer’s opulent film, “I Am Love,” Tilda Swinton is the matriarch of a Milanese family who embarks on an affair with a young chef, played by Edoardo Gabbriellini. Early in the film, a plate of succulent, glazed prawns, prepared by Gabbriellini, is placed before Swinton and all her alien grace. As she slowly skewers a bite, the restaurant dims and a spot of light immerses Swinton in a glow. She chews and swallows. Enraptured, she goes for more.

While Swinton’s affair with this rugged, back-to-land chef is consummated much later on the dirt of a rural hillside, its best notes and its true beginning marinate in that plate, bathed in a golden broth beneath Swinton’s ready fork. The prawns here are sex, and the sensuality of the scene far surpasses its later physical counterpart.

Food has long been a vehicle through which a plot is furthered or a relationship is conveyed on film. It has also provided a unique feast through which sexuality can be visualized, from Swinton’s rich-in-every-way foodgasm to Jason Biggs’ less glamorous pastry experimentations in “American Pie.”

Since food is universally experienced on a physical and emotional level, it is easily translatable to the screen and packed with meaning. Where sex scenes can be awkwardly blocked or clumsily cheesy, adding the element of food as a metaphor, a sensory delight or mere garnish can make a scene more powerful and often, better than the real deal.

In satisfying hunger on the big screen, stars are brought down to earth; they become subject to the obsessions of all creatures. While Swinton is gorgeously shot and cloaked in Fendi, she sheds her poise for something wholly human as she chows down. Her transformation, from a perfectly prim and coiffed lady to a wild and ravenous creature of love is testament to our visceral needs and animal desires.

Food and sex made on-screen debuts in silent films, like Erich von Stroheim’s 1928 “The Wedding March.” This film, notorious for a wild orgy sequence, uses food to display the wealth of aristocracy, a parallel to the excess of the orgy. When the director turned star, von Stroheim, offers his love a box of chocolates, she is delighted. In the throws of love, the exchange of food here, like the prawns in “I Am Love,” is the materialization of complex and ripe romantic emotion.

Before the 1930s, filmmakers like von Stroheim enjoyed a surprising freedom in which to depict sexuality. Proto-porn “stag” films showed frank images of sex while starlet Theda Bara bore her breasts in The Queen of Sheba (1921). This all came to a screeching halt in the 1930s, with the adoption of the Hays Code, which set a new moral standard for the screen. Sex was out. As was nudity. However, studios quickly found ways to get around the regulations. Innuendo ruled and food was increasingly used as proper proxy for sexual appetite.

In Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief,“ 1955, Grace Kelly picnics with Cary Grant and asks if he would prefer a “leg or a breast”; the double-entendre speaks for itself, and the sexual energy surges without so much as a bare buttock. Later, films took more liberties. In “Tom Jones,” from 1963, Albert Finney charms a woman over the dinner table. The meal becomes increasingly sexual, with coy smiles and oyster slurping.

Despite all these moments, food and sex did not first meet on-set. The two have long been linked, from Michelangelo’s Eve reaching for the forbidden fruit, to Greek sculptures of a well-fed Dionysus and Titian’s Bacchanalia. The moralizing efforts of images of the forbidden fruit, the use of eating as a sign for the less-proper aspects of man, are echoed in film. Lust and gluttony are cardinal sins after all, and in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Augustus Gloop faces a sad fate when he gorges himself at the chocolate river. Violet Beauregarde is punished too—sent to the juicer after satisfying her oral fixation.

Meanwhile, other films celebrate the sensual pleasures of eating. In “9 ½ Weeks,” a now unrecognizable Mickey Rourke sensually feeds Kim Basinger cherries, JELL-O, peppers and milk. She sits by the fridge, eyes closed, as Rourke dribbles honey on her tongue and across her bare legs before going in for the kiss. The 1985 Japanese film “Tampopo” delivers perhaps the most stunning food scene ever. In a single, lingering shot, two lovers kiss while passing a fragile egg yolk between themselves. The climax is exhilarating.

As these characters reattach conventional behavior to their deep emotional longings, to their sensory reactions, to love and desire, we watch, as enraptured as Swinton with her prawns; however, instead of seafood, we clasp a serious handful of popcorn to our mouths in anticipation.

These films seem like a modern update of the celebration of the feast and the worship of Dionysus, Greek god of food, pleasure and wine. His cult of female worshippers, the Maenads, have even found a place in modern entertainment—who could forget Michelle Forbe’s guest appearance as orgy and feast enthusiast Maryann on the last season of “True Blood?”

Even “Fantasia” gets in on the action. The “Pastoral Symphony,” otherwise known as Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 in F” portraying Bacchus and his buddies, is basically structured like a coital encounter. The section begins slowly: centaurs courting one another during the celebratory feast of wine making. The scene transitions into a thunderstorm—a climax complete with Zeus firing phallic lightning bolts to earth—and finishes with the dewy, sleepy aftermath of the night’s wildness. Cartoon sex.

In recalling the Bacchanalia, film shifts the animalistic elements of food and sex into something divine. It’s a little acknowledgement to a holy trinity of eating, praying and loving. While the centaurs and satyrs in Fantasia are all half-animal, they are in the company of a god. Even the pleasure of scenes like Basinger and Rourke’s food-fest are delivered with a full dose of divinity. Swinton’s prawn encounter, with its heavenly lighting, can best be compared to Bernini’s 1652 sculpture, “The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa,” depicting a woman’s physical and internal encounter with God, and a moment some scholars have compared to orgasm.

In this way, food and sex on film can be about both the animalistic and the heavenly. Condemned or celebrated, it’s a true awakening to what is essentially human—the urges that unite us and perpetuate us and the joys that we can’t quite explain. Therefore, Swinton’s prawn encounter is so engrossing because we know the feeling of emotional hunger. It’s the arrival of Julliette Binoche and her chocolates in a small French town or Basinger, wide mouthed, waiting for honey on her tongue. It’s both a heartily human Bruegel peasant feast and the divine in Da Vinci’s Last Supper. In a space as purely visual as the movie theater—or the cathedral for that matter—food is the perfect vessel to fill with both the complex mysteries and animal instincts of human emotion.

In other words,

“I’ll have what she’s having.”

text by: Joseph Isho Levinson










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