Film: How to make a meal of the movies

As a festival at the NFT shows, the way a country films its food serves up the national character on a plate
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The UK premiere of Laurent Benegui's bistro romance Au Petit Margeury (1995) in the ongoing "A Feast for the Eyes" season of food films at the National Film Theatre should please fans of French cinema. Yet the French, who claim to have invented both cinema and cooking, have made remarkably few films about their passion for eating. They have no Brillat- Savarin of the silver screen.

The way to an audience's heart is often through its stomach. It is said that the Danish author Isak Dinesen wrote the original story of Babette's Feast as a bet with a friend: she wanted to write a popular story to bring her instant success in America - and correctly thought that describing mountains of delicious edibles was the answer. Half a century later, the American Academy again confirmed her hunch by awarding an Oscar to Gabriel Axel's film.

Film directors have a great love for the seductive visual aspects of what we like to eat. Many directors (especially, it has to be said, Italian- Americans such as Coppola, Scorsese and Tucci) equate their role as a director with the role of the chef. Anthony Minghella has said that he felt "immediately at home on a film set with people rushing around" after a childhood spent in his parents' cafe on the south coast of England.

Inevitably, different nationalities reflect varied food preoccupations. Spanish directors such as Bunuel and Bigas Lunas have loved depicting food as a metaphor, usually for sexuality (in the case of Biga Lunas's hormone-fuelled 1992 salami of a hit, Jamon, Jamon) or social control (Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie has people eating shamefully in the toilet and then unselfconsciously defecating in public round a dinner table). Spanish-speaking Mexico has produced the best known of the food-as-sensuality fables, Alfonso Arrau's Like Water for Chocolate (1991), a charming tale of a woman whose cooking is so suffused by her feelings that those who eat it weep or laugh depending on her state of mind in the kitchen.

We Brits have preferred to show our Protestant sexual distemper and worry at corporeal pleasures in movies such as Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, his Wife and her Lover (1989), a movie of bellyaching, Jacobean lyricism that expressly confronts food, sexuality and decay in artfully co-mingled situations. Alan Howard (who plays the Lover) spends every evening reading books while he eats his solitary restaurant meal - a habit that would get him thrown out by Chinese chefs, since Chinese medicine expressly teaches that it is damaging to the spleen to eat and read at the same time. And it is to Japanese and Taiwanese directors we must turn for the greatest enthusiasm for food as expressed in celluloid - Juzo Itami's "noodle western" Tampopo (1986) and Ang Lee's masterpiece, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994), are both paeans to the pleasures of eating.

As it happens, Ang Lee is a serious chef himself: he once told me that he prepares two months' worth of frozen meals for his wife when going off to shoot a movie. At the other end of the scale is the inveterate food-hater Jan Svankmeyer, whose animated classics are full of a mid- European disgust at the notion of eating filthy stews and rank broths. He was put off food, or so he says, by being forced to eat unspeakable muck at a summer camp when a child.

Another director who is a serious chef is actor Stanley Tucci, whose Big Night (1996), the story of two brothers who try to open a gourmet Italian restaurant in America in the indifferent Fifties, contains one of the cinema's truly great cooking sequences. The film concludes with Tucci himself, all his hopes for success dashed, spending 10 minutes making himself an omelette in an empty restaurant kitchen. Not even cookery programmes dare do real-time cookery. The simplicity of the scene is mesmerising. "I practised for a year and a half to make that frittata," he told me, proudly.

Tucci has plans to do the New York De Niro thing and open his own restaurant - after all, he trained in one of the Big Apple's most famous eateries, La Madre, in order to gen up on his cooking skills for Big Night, and has become best friends with the chef who owns it. He also plans to publish a cookbook soon; one that includes the recipe for the centre-piece dish for the banquet that concludes Big Night, the Timpano (a multi-layered delicacy the size of a wedding cake), which is a secret family recipe from a region of Italy from where his immigrant parents hail.

Great food movie moments abound. Who can forget the classic shaving garlic scene in Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990), when a Mafia don shows Joe Pesci how to make a pasta sauce by using a lethal-looking razor blade to scrape off wafer-thin pieces of garlic. And from Asian cinema, whose preoccupation with food is quite the equal of Italian gastronomic designs, Zhang Yimou's To Live has a terrifying scene where a starved gynaecologist binges on steamed buns before coming to the aid of a pregnant woman. The buns then swell up inside him when he gulps down too much tea, and render him as painfully incapacitated as his patient.

The NFT's foodie season has many gems and a few duds. Why show marginally food-related films such as A Private Function (1975) and then leave out Tampopo and Ferreri's infamous La Grande Bouffe (1973)? Oft-seen cannibalistic films, such as Eating Raoul (1982) and Delicatessen (1991), are scheduled, and the meagre Comic Strip fare of Eat the Rich (1987) is there too. But why did the programmers not seek out the gloriously perverse Korean cannibal movie Chul-Soo Park's 301-302 (1995), in which a fat woman makes an agreement with her anorexic neighbour that she will eat her?

A few words of warning: do not expect to eat too well between movies. It is sad to report that since the NFT restaurant was refitted recently, outside caterers were bought in. They enliven the chic, expensive chrome and video-screen setting of the South Bank restaurant and bar with curled- up, sock-smelling collations not seen this side of Egon Ronay's Seventies survey of British motorway food.

I am told that they also provide dreadnought-grey pies for HMS Belfast, a little way down-river. But those nice people at Covent Garden Soups are, at least, providing tastings after some of the performances.

Otherwise, take your own sandwiches to this particular film feast.

The Food Film season at the NFT, South Bank, London, runs till the end of the month.

'Au Petit Margeury' shows at NFT2 on 27 Aug at 6:15pm; 'Like Water for Chocolate' on 29 and 31 Aug; 'Big Night' on 18, 19 and 20 Aug; 'Eat, Drink, Man, Woman' on 10 and 28 Aug. 'Babette's Feast' is shown as part of the Bodil Kjer season on 6 Sept. NFT Box Office: 0171-928 3232