EATING (1990) *** 1/4
People worry about their jobs, their income, politics, perhaps about the environment. But there's no common denominator like the fixation on food addiction, its causes, and the bad things it does to you. Especially within the large group that is the focus of Henry Jaglom's film EATING.
In an incessant stream of giggling arrivals bearing bizarre, California-culture, tension-relieving gifts, 38 women come to Helene's (Lisa Richards) for her 40th birthday. Most of them are younger than she is, and above-average in looks and figure. After all, this is Southern California, and the guests are in reality professional actresses. They also have heads which are probably filled with the helium of the balloons that festoon the house. Another reminder of where we are geographically.
Some sanity is introduced by Helene's still-handsome mother. As played by Frances Bergen (Edgar Bergen's widow and Candice's progenitor), she is relatively wise. Otherwise almost everyone else is obsessed with body shape and with food. Some are secretly jealous of friends. All are openly envious of French guest Martine (Nelly Alard) who's been sunbathing topless by the pool.
"Why do French women have such fantastic bodies?" they wonder. The question is valid but also discriminatory. Writer-director Jaglom leaves out the millions of men of France who can pig out on cuisine and still stay trim.
Nominally, Martine is there to make a French TV documentary on Southern California behavior. Deep down, however, she shares the concerns of her American friends. Alternating between observing and filming, she is eventually drawn into participating. Adding her true feelings to those of others, she unexpectedly reveals her own insecurities.
Jaglom is an oddity, a maverick who works entirely by himself and whose subjects are Hollywood people. EATING looks like an eavesdropping, voyeuristic Candid Camera film, or at least like a theatrical exercise of actors improvising at playing ordinary people. In reality this is a very clever, phony movie, a "staged documentary" whose every word on cellulite is penned by Jaglom and every foot of celluloid is creatively edited. Yet the actors are most convincing as real people and Jaglom's dialogues are amazingly on target. What an ear, what notebooks the man must have!
The party and Martine's camera catalyze confidences, stock-taking and some shifts in relationships. Remember again, this is not a cross-section of America but a slice of Southern California. It is hard to sort out many of the guests, who are different people yet come from basic sets of molds. Hardly anyone is really interesting or has any dimensions beyond the talk of food.
The talk brings out connected subjects or worries, such as sex, aging, family relations, sex, marriage, ambitions, sex, abortions, breast implants, shrinks, sex, and endless trivia--but no matter what is said, everything still returns to and revolves around the sun of food. The fact that the trivia are non-trivial to the speakers intensifies Jaglom's irony.
There have been rather few movies with food as their main star. Here is an incomplete list I have hastily compiled.
Luis Bunuel's surreal THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972) where a dinner is always interrupted; Marco Ferreri's LA GRANDE BOUFFE (1973), where people gorged themselves literally to death; a grotesque restaurant sequence in MONTY PYTHON'S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1982); Paul Bartel's EATING RAOUL (1982); Juzo Itami's TAMPOPO (1986); Gabriel Axel's BABETTE'S FEAST (1987); Peter Greenaway's THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER (1989).
Since 1990 and EATING we have also seen Jeunet and Caro's cannibalistic DELICATESSEN (1991); Alfonso Arau's romantic LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE (1992); Ang Lee's THE WEDDING BANQUET (1993) and EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN (1994).
Interestingly, the great majority of those films have been notable, even outstanding. Most of them are humorous or black humorous, while only BABBETTE, LIKE WATER and EAT DRINK glorify cuisine.
EATING is a most satisfactory movie too, while, with its realistic, cinema-verite approach, it differs a great deal from titles above, except that it can be very funny. A random example. A woman, anxious to break into movies, asks her actress friend: "Do I have to sleep with someone to get a part?" There's a tiny pause before the reply: "How big a part?"
The movie proceeds from one little drama to the next. All are ludicrous, most are comical, but some are funny-sad. A daughter reveals to her mother how the birth of her young sister Nancy drove her to compulsive eating and vomiting. She concludes with what cured her: "I finally threw up Nancy."
All this may not be everybody's cup of tea. Even when it is, some viewers may find it overlong. I did not. My main objection is that only unsophisticated fare is mentioned, chocolate chip cookies, baked potatoes and the like. Couldn't Jaglom have refined the bill of fare and added Burgundian specialties, pasta dishes, sauerbraten, mid-Eastern or Asian delicacies, Linzer, Sacher or Dobosch tortes?
The maverick EATING is a bit better than just good. It gets my three and a quarter stars but will not get even a single one from Gourmet magazine.