We went to see “Ratatouille” today. It’s a very fun movie on its own terms, and a really good foodie film. The premise (in the unlikely event you’ve managed not to hear about it) is that Remy is an aspiring chef—and a rat. Through a dramatic and wonderfully animated series of events, he arrives in Paris, where he helps guide gawky garbage-boy Linguini in the ways of cookery at Gusteau’s. There are plenty of cooking lessons offered: trust your nose, learn to work with economy and precision, use the best ingredients you can find for optimal taste, wash your hands. The story is engaging, the voices skillful, and the dialogue mostly sharp and only occasionally cheesy. (Insert pun about rats and cheese here.)
New York Times critic Frank Bruni had a piece in Sunday’s paper arguing that the movie “affirms the triumph of food snobs and fetishists.” I’m not sure what Bruni considers snobbery. There’s a subplot thread about a villainous chef trying to cash in on the Gusteau name with frozen foods such as “Tooth-Pickin’ Chicken” and “Corn Puppies.” And a dramatic foil of the piece is the highly elitist critic Anton Ego, who is astonished to learn that the once-fading restaurant is popular even though Ego hasn’t rated the new chef’s efforts. But the attention-getting cookery is built on whole ingredients such as fresh herbs, cream, vegetables and salt, with only passing attention given to luxury items like truffle oil. And Remy labors to convince his brother, Emil, that fresh food is really better to eat than garbage. This happens to be a key principle of Recipes of the Damned. If that’s snobbery, I’m proud to call myself a snob.
But then, the character of the late chef Gusteau is a sort of secondary hero, muse, and Jedi tutor in the movie. And his motto is “Anyone can cook.” Wow, that’s some rampant fetishism. Bruni argues that the film focuses on Remy’s highly refined palate, and notes “perhaps the last big-budget movie protagonist with an appetite as refined as Remy’s was Hannibal Lecter in ‘The Silence of the Lambs,’ from 1991.” This argument only works if you ignore “Ratatouille’s” valorization of rustic cooking, and if you set your palate and budget standards high enough to disqualify cookery-focused films like “Big Night” (1996) and “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994). High culinary standards are not that new a theme in the movies, though as a lowly rat Remy may make the longest journey to culinary excellence.
I’ll also add that it’s rather perverse to eat middling theater popcorn while beautiful images of tomatoes, garlic cloves, leeks and bread dance across the screen. Sneak in a baguette and some cheese if you go.