Thursday, March 29, 2007

Great Moments in Cinematic Baking



I love food. I think the fact that I maintain a food blog might hint at that. I also happen to love film. If we suspend our disbelief for a moment and pretend that food and film were women and that I were somehow straight, my relationship with the two of them would go something like this...

Film was my first love. She was wild, emotional, larger-than-life. We dated through high school and most of our university years, but we'd grown apart by our senior year. We loved each other but just couldn't commit ourselves to a serious, exclusive relationship.

Along comes Food, who'd been there all along, to console me. Stable and nurturing with both feet planted firmly in the earth, I thought "Oh, how blind have I been not to have seen her all my life?" She moved in straight away and we started planning our future meals together.

Several years later, Food and I are still together, but part of me misses Film and always will. I confess sneaking off to see her every once in a while. Food pretends not to mind too much when she finds the theater stubs in my coat pocket. We've talked about my problem in couples therapy and, to my surprise, she confessed that she's always wondered what it felt like to be on Film.

Food, Film and Me. That's my idea of a three-way.

Are you nauseated? No? Then continue...

Food on Film. That's the topic for today. Yes, we've all seen Babette's Feast (30 times), Like Water for Chocolate, and Eat Drink Man Woman. All of these films appeal to us (or, at least me) for one reason or another. Food is center stage. Appetite as metaphor for human desire, etc. Another thing these films have in common is a central character for whom food is his or her primary outlet of expression. Cooking is action. They are, all of them, cuisine-driven cinema.

What has interested me lately are films in which cooking is not the central theme. I like to watch people who are not supposed to be food professionals preparing meals. For me, watching characters not known for their cooking abilities attempt to bake or boil is far more fascinating and often more telling. Think of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's. If you own it, watch the scene in which Holly Golightly attempts to make dinner for Paul Varjak. Perhaps I read too much into things, but notice the way she tosses the salad. She doesn't know what she's doing. She's in over her head, which is entirely appropriate, considering the character. It's actually rather heart-breaking. The tension of the scene finds release when the contents of her pressure cooker ("Chicken and saffron rice with chocolate sauce, an East Indian favorite.") explode all over her kitchen. So the foreshadowing and symbolism are a little heavy-handed. Food-focused people get the sense of what's about to happen.

This week's pick comes from the rather odd little 1970 Jacques Demy musical, Donkey Skin. Based on the the fairly tale of the same name (well, the french Peau d'âne) by Charles Perrault. I saw this film with my friend Dan a couple of years ago. Sadly for him, I associated the name of the film with his own. Po' Dan. I don't' remember who dragged who to see it, but I'm grateful to either one of us. It is marvelously bizarre and wildly anachronistic (the resident Fairy Godmother descends in a helicopter, naturally). And then of course there's not one, but two Catherine Deneuves in a musical baking number.

A film could not be more up my particular alley.

In the scene below, Deneuve (the Princess/Donkey Skin) prepares a "love cake" for the object of her affection, a lovesick prince. The importance of this cake is illustrated by the fact that she feels the need to don her dress "the color of the sun" to prepare it. It matters little if you understand French. I just want you to take note of her baking skills. And, possibly, the movement of her full, lace-trimmed sleeves as she works. Whether Demy intended it or not, Deneuve's unconvincing technique speaks volumes. Remember, this is a fairly tale and a French fairy tale musical at that. The suspension of one's belief is critical. How else can Catherine Deneuve baking in that gown be explained? Of course, my belief has been suspended for so long that I am convinced that she can do just about anything, like turn Susan Sarandon into a vampire by merely rolling around half naked with her and exchanging fluids.

Enjoy the clip.

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