Decorative Fruit, by David Bax
In retrospect, maybe the first warning came during the pre-meal cocktails. Roger Gual’s Tasting Menu is a film that takes place over the course (or courses, rather) of a dinner on the closing night of a world-renowned restaurant in Spain. The titular menu was actually designed in real life by Joan Roca, one of the most celebrated chefs alive. Yet, even from the cocktails, the characters and the film are at best bemused but mostly indifferent to the creations with which they are presented. When told they’re drinking a margarita in an aloe leaf, none of the patrons can come up with much of a response. From there, the tone has been set. Tasting Menu cares about its story and characters as little as it cares about its food.
Gual follows a handful of the restaurant’s guests throughout the evening, revealing their stories and then letting them entangle with one another. It’s like a Robert Altman film but with a lacquer of pleasantness coating even such topics as grief and divorce.
The estranged couple (Jan Cornet and Claudia Bassols) are attending the dinner together because the place is so popular and reservations are made so far in advance that they’ve been waiting for a table since they were still married. The same goes for the widow (Fionnula Flanagan) who has brought her husband’s ashes to the place where he couldn’t wait to eat. There’s a running theme, in fact, about how much people change and how much they stay the same over time. Frustratingly, Gual never delves beneath the surface of it. Stephen Rea’s mysterious solo diner offers only that he is “intrigued by the process.” The movie isn’t.
In fact, the movie isn’t even visually interested in the food. When one of the dishes is brought to a table, we hear reactions like “Looks amazing!” and “The presentation is fantastic!” Yet Gual’s camera never even dips below shoulder level to allow us a look at the damned plate. A more complete film might suggest metaphors in each course but we only get a single, clunky one when the chef groaningly imparts a secret to the divorced couple: “The emulsions only work when they are together.” It’s like the Simpsons episode where the truck stop line cook insists, “Sticking together’s what good waffles do.”
Everything here is so frothy that even the characters don’t know how to react when things turn serious. When the climax, involving a sunken boat whose passenger are adrift in the waters off the shore from the restaurant, finally arrives, no one seems to buy the danger of it. It’s a happy, foregone conclusion that everyone’s going to be all right, the bad guy (who’s as nuanced as the mean jock in a high school movie) isn’t going to get the girl and they’ll all probably end up dancing on the beach. If, by some chance, you bought your ticket for Tasting Menu a year ago, when your life was different, I’m sorry to tell you it wasn’t worth the wait.