Features Film

Family, Romance and Death – The Dinner Table on Film

HOW often do you sit around the dinner table?

I ask because people have been edging away from the dinner table ever since television entered their homes. It is an inescapable reality of our techno-obsessed and increasingly insular world. A culture where screens – more often than not – take precedent over face-to-face interaction.

iPhones are the latest dinner table distraction. These endorphin-stimulating devices make it possible for us to sit at the table without actually being ‘present.’ As the phone addicted sub-conscious might reason: why would I engage with those sitting around me when the world (well, at least the world-wide web) is at my fingertips?

On film, the dinner table has long been – and remains – an important setting. A place for togetherness, openness, pleasure, laughter, debate, conflict and chaos.

UPPER CLASS DISPUTES

OREN Moverman’s new film The Dinner, based on a popular novel by Herman Koch, follows the story of a highly-strung dinner between two upper class couples.

As the lavish courses keep coming, the couples – consisting of brothers Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan) and Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) along with their wives Claire (Laura Linney) and Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) – debate how they should proceed after learning their teenage sons have committed a hideous crime.

The film is a somewhat messy affair. From its first bite – a bizarre attempt at a symbolic and stylised opening – you can tell it will be cinematic salmonella. Coogan’s distractingly bad American accent and misifiring talk of the American Civil War follows – to only worsen matters.

dinner

Issues of class around the dinner table have been served up in more digestible fashion. The Michelin Star master of this skill was Mexican filmmaker Luis Bunuel. His surrealist films The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) both deliver biting satire on the sheltered upper-classes.

For Bunuel, the dinner table was the perfect formal space to expose the pomposity and corruption of the bourgeoisie. We watch on as their empty chatter is drowned out by urban noise and comical absurdity.

Just this year, Sally Potter’s black and white satire The Party tugged at the threads of upper-class life in less fantastical fashion (see review). As in The Exterminating Angel, the base tendencies of the dinner party attendees are slowly exposed as civility is disrupted by aggression and the appearance of a gun.

DEATH AT THE DINNER TABLE

DINNER and death in film have often gone hand in hand. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Stacy Title’s The Last Supper (1995) bring the two together with a philosophical spin.

In Rope, this involves a Nietzschean-inspired act of violence which the protagonist Rupert (James Stewart) must uncover. The Last Supper, on the other hand, sees a group of students invite provocative guests to dinner – a Hitler enthusiast, for example – so they can dispose of them in a violent manner. It is a film that in our current age of political polarisation and campus violence feels worryingly relevant.

Unwelcome dinner guests can make for brilliant cinematic moments. Laughter and comfort around the dinner table turns to screams and body horror when an alien bursts out of Kane’s chest in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). The sound of cracking ribs and the sight of spurting blood is enough to put anyone off their dinner for some considerable time.

Revenge is on the menu in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015) when Alejandro (Benico Del Toro) walks in on a family dinner with a silenced gun in hand. The scene is a display of sheer ruthlessness as the hitman steps into an intimate family setting to enact retribution – a scene that befits the violent and callous world painted in Villeneuve’s film.

In Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), the violent world of Italian-American gangs is hidden nonchalantly from under the nose of Tommy’s elderly mother as she welcomes her son and friends over for a meal. With a dead body crammed into the car boot just yards from her cosy meal, Tommy’s oblivious mother enjoys playful conversation with her son and friends – even asking Tommy to finally ‘get a nice girl’.

TABLE TENSION

THE only person around the table in Goodfellas who shows any sign of unease during a meal is Henry (Ray Liotta). He is probably experiencing the same kind of nervousness that has been felt around the dinner table on many occasions in film.

Examples include the two German women forced to cook for – and eat with – a wearied group of American soldiers in David Ayer’s Fury (2014). The two women are deeply unsettled as the muddied men, stripped of innocence and civility, share nightmarish tales of war.

In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), American History X (1998) and Get Out (2017) it is racial tension – both overt and covert – that hangs over the dinner table. For American History X’s Derek (Edward Norton), a return to the family dinner table provides an opportunity to spew racist hate and shed the innocence of youth in front of his appalled mother.

TAKING A STAND

THERE is a less hateful act of defiance from Andrew (Miles Teller) in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. The aspiring jazz drummer verbally fights his corner against his patronising, sports-fanatic family.

It is a moment that disturbs the family hierarchy around the table and demonstrates a growing conviction in his art. Likewise, it shows that Fletcher’s (JK Simmons) harsh methods are pumping confidence and machismo into this young musician.

Abigail (Greta Gerwig), from this year’s 20th Century Women, is also looking to disturb expectations when she openly admits she is ‘menstruating’ in the middle of a group meal. This abrupt statement turns the dinner table into a forum for honesty and revelations as Julie (Elle Fanning) openly discusses losing her virginity.

‘BETTER OUT THAN IN, I ALWAYS SAY’

STANDING out at the dinner table can also provoke laughter.

Everyone’s favourite lumpy, swamp-dwelling ogre, Shrek, looks completely out of place when he attends dinner with his royal parents-in-law during Shrek 2 (2004). Without any table manners, he lives up to his uncouth looks by ripping a chicken apart with his bare hands and proudly unleashing a loud burp.

There is also an amusing lack of manners on show in Elf (2003), Stepbrothers (2008) and the Blues Brothers (1980). Yet one of the funniest – and most endearing – moments comes when Edward Scissor Hands actually attempts to be polite at the dinner table. With his long sharp fingers, this is an almost impossible task for young Edward, but he perseveres.

PUPPY LOVE

SOME of cinema’s most romantic moments come at the dinner table. Funnily enough, one of these results in two dogs sharing a spaghetti kiss in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (1955).

LadyAndTheTramp

Baby (Ansel Elgort) and Debora (Lily James) continue their blossoming relationship over a fancy meal in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. The radiating chemistry between the two is only interrupted by an ominous sighting of Baby’s old boss Doc at the bar.

An elaborate musical display at the dinner table helps warm Beauty to the Beast in Disney’s 1991 and 2017 classics. This moment of fantasy and theatrics is the igniting point for an unlikely love.

As in Shrek 2, the dinner table often acts as a meeting point for parents and potential sons or daughters-in-law. That is the case in Annie Hall (1977) as a neurotic Alvy (Woody Allen) breaks the 4th wall to dissect the social dynamics at play during his Easter meal with Annie’s family.

At one point, his thoughts drift off to the bustling Italian family meals he is used to. This is just like what we see young Irish immigrant Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) experience for the first time with her boyfriend Tony’s (Emory Cohen) family in Brooklyn (2015).

The dinner table, too, can be a setting for a malfunctioning romance. With dulled colours and sped-up music, something is clearly amiss in La La Land when Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) sit down for their first meal together in a while. As the dinner progresses, it is clear the two are no longer in-sync and the sound of a smoke alarm marks a blunt break-up.

Even with the encroaching influence of technology, it is hard to imagine a world without the communal experience of the dinner table. It will continue to be a key part of cinema as it is of family life.

Maybe, the dinner table will even remain a place for a bold director in the future to base an entire film on. After all, Bunuel and Louis Malle (My Dinner with Andre, 1981) managed to do it.

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