A Movie by Hr. Boe Zentropa

A Taste of Hunger (Smagen af sult) Review – What Should Be a Delicious Meal is Instead Bland Fare

Danish director Christoffer Boe’s film A Taste of Hunger begins with a quote by literary provocateur Kathy Acker; “If you ask me what I want, I’ll tell you. I want everything.” The quote is both deceptive and appropriate. Deceptive because it comes from Kathy Acker whose work remains subversive and incendiary; appropriate because it’s basically the thesis of the film. Two people who want everything – a happy marriage, a successful career, a balanced family life, yet are self-sabotaging their own goals.

The film revolves around a perfectionist chef, Carsten (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his wife and business partner, Maggie (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal) and their quest to gain a Michelin star for their haute cuisine restaurant ‘Malus’ in Copenhagen. Boe and co-writer Tobias Lindholm’s script divides the action between one fateful night and a series of flashbacks which are titled for the basic elements of culinary components that create a tantalising dish; Sweet, Sour, Fat, Heat, Salt. One component is left out, which is Bitter – arguably something the audience may be after experiencing a relatively run of the mill family drama dressed in the borrowed finery of a something more urgent and true.

The first flashback shown establishes the characters of Carsten and Maggie. Carsten is working for his brother Torben (a reliably great Nicolas Bro) in a catering company. The guests aren’t interested in Carsten’s experimental cuisine and Torben is sent off to find sushi for them. Maggie wanders down to the kitchen where she finds the defeated chef. They strike up a conversation which in turn becomes a reveal of their dreams and hopes and establishes the instant chemistry between the two. “You deserve a star,” Maggie tells Carsten. Years later, and with the addition of two kids, the couple open their business which Maggie has sunk all her savings and inheritance into. The success of the fine dining establishment lives or dies on getting that Michelin star, and on the night they think a Michelin representative has visited Malus, the unthinkable happens – Carsten’s main dish is ruined by over fermented lemons.

Maggie rushes out into the streets of Copenhagen to track down the Michelin representative and hopefully invite him back to Malus for another dinner. She also has another motive; a mysterious letter has been left for Carsten stating that his wife loves another man. Boe sets up a clock on the evening in question as Maggie runs across town and Carsten, defeated, fires his sous chef. Perhaps Boe is trying to insert some urgency into the narrative, but with his repeated use of flashbacks, the device isn’t efficacious.

A Taste of Hunger is the story of ambition meeting reality and the effect that has on Carsten and Maggie’s family. Operating a restaurant is time consuming and requires, as Carsten states “absolute focus.” Somewhere in the maelstrom of running the business Carsten and Maggie have lost each other and the run of effect of that is they are also not great parents to their children, nine-year-old Chloe (Flora Augusta), and five-year-old August (August Vinkel). In flashbacks we see Maggie become involved with the manipulative Frederick (Charlie Gustafsson) and the repercussions the affair has on her family (including an extended sequence where August is lost in the forest because Maggie was on the phone to Frederick).

In the present-day Frederick blackmails Maggie over the identity of the mystery Michelin diner which leads to a depressing scene of humiliation for her. It’s all for nought – there was no diner and Carsten finds the letter that was left for him about Maggie’s infidelity.

Coster-Waldau and Greis-Rosenthal do their best to breathe life into their hastily sketched characters. Both do a wonderful job of conveying the chemistry between the couple and the anger that occurs when love turns to hate. Coster-Waldau is particularly great when he is interacting with post-revelation Maggie.

The production design and cinematography also do a lot of heavy lifting in the film. Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro understands the fetishism around food – especially food created by a master chef. His shots reach through the screen and will the audience to experience the sensuality and seductive nature of the meals. The film looks far more appealing than the story it is serving up.

A ludicrously pat ending does nothing to resolve the central drama of the film which was already weak. The most pertinent message the film gets across is how damaging adult relationships can be on children caught in the crossfire. Yet so much of the drama is manufactured as is the urgency of that fateful night. Yes, being an adult is messy, yes, it is hard to create a work life balance, and no, you can’t have it all without making sacrifices; you just need to work out which things can be sacrificed. It’s all the more surprising that Thomas Lindholm who penned such extraordinary films as The Hunt and Another Round turned his talents to a film as simplistic as A Taste of Hunger.

There are redeeming features in A Taste of Hunger especially for foodies, although even then we don’t really see enough food to be satisfied. Coster-Waldau and Greis-Rosenthal are magnetic screen presences, and they are giving performances which elevate the uninteresting script. A film about obsession and perfection should have teeth and not be reduced to a formulaic melodrama. A Taste of Hunger is bland fare that only occasionally reaches the level of verisimilitude, and when it does it makes one wonder how so many of the other parts of the film’s recipe are undercooked.

Director: Christoffer Boe

Cast: Katrine Greis-Rosenthal, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Flora Augusta

Writers: Christoffer Boe, Tobias Lindholm

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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