I saw the forgettable but reasonably charming food movie No Reservations (2007) in an airplane last week, and again tonight because my daughter brought it with her on a DVD labeled Ratatouille (2007) when she came home for Thanksgiving (I liked this version better, but more for the winking bank-shot references Pixar excels at – the classic for me is the Boston accent of the lobsters in Finding Nemo – and animation wows). Somehow, the romantic leads had become French, the cute kid a cute rat, and the whole thing moved to Paris, but everything else was pretty much in place: the young man who defrosts the ingenue just gets an Italian mother instead of an Italian cuisine resumé. Even the ratatouille on which the plot hinges comes up red, white, and green!
It turns out the recipe is traceable to a German movie called Bella Martha (2001) where, yes, the romantic lead is Italian (No Reservations explicitly credits itself as a remake). The more Italians I get to know the more impatient I get with this Northern stereotype of them as uncomplicated joy-living children of love and nature, put on earth as an antidote to Germanic-Anglo-Saxon inhibition (even E.M. Forster, a humane and insightful writer, was guilty). Barzini put paid to this nonsense more than forty years ago, but some myths are too cuddly (and condescending) to die, I guess.
The other striking meme of movies like these is the need for the authors to tie themselves in knots to refute fundamental facts of the context. Ratatouille is totally entangled in the contradiction between the philosophy of its eminence grise that “anyone can cook” and the plot’s dependence on the fact that, no they can’t!, and the idea of cooking as an enormously refined, specialized, and competitive elite enterprise, not to mention the reality of rats in the human world. Finding Nemo had to “sivilize” the sharks into a twelve-step program that would obviously lead to their starvation; The Lion King just dances around what lions actually eat, namely most of the rest of the cast. Willing suspension of disbelief is one thing, but ludicrous upending of the structure of the natural world is maybe pushing it.
I wonder to what degree Pixar and Castle Rock realized they were plowing the same field at the same time. Will the foodie become a standardized genre like the western with versions, contra-foodies, and the like? Will kids be asking for aprons and toques for Christmas instead of cap guns? Who will be its Sergio Leone and its Eastwood?