Synopsis: A power couple within the Danish gourmet scene run the popular restaurant Malus in Copenhagen. The couple is willing to sacrifice everything to achieve their dream – getting the coveted Michelin star.
Stars: Katrine Greis-Rosenthal, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Charlie Gustafsson, Dag Malmberg, Nicolas Bro, Flora Augusta, August Christian Høyer-Kruse-Vinkel
Director: Christoffer Boe
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: During the height of the reality TV peak (and, I’ll be honest, a good deal after), my most strict appointment television was Top Chef and its spin-offs and, in my weakest moments, the saltiest of them all, Hell’s Kitchen. While I eventually had to chuck these weekly commitments due to not being able to keep up with so many, I always appreciate these types of competition shows that were more about output than social popularity. It didn’t matter how much of a terrible human being you were; if you made a good appetizer that week, you would outlast the nice guy who overbaked the fish course. As with all reality television, one could easily spot the formula that went into casting these shows and filming and editing them, so they became predictable to plot out at a certain point, and just the same comfort food television as sitcoms are to us ‘80s babies. Formulas aside, I also got to the point where I couldn’t stand the egos of the featured chefs. While the tantrums made for good TV, they didn’t do much to show viewers that these were people who deserved substantial cash rewards for their outbursts of rage.
Since these shows have premiered, movies about the culinary industry have taken that celebrity chef character and either made them the villain or the misunderstood mensch on a redemptive arc, to varying degrees of success. Boiling Point recently used a one-take approach that managed to rise above the gimmick to give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at a dinner service that goes wildly off the rails. Looking over the plot details, I was half expecting the new Dutch film A Taste of Hunger to provide the same experience as similar films that have come before and not much more. Admittedly, early on, I was nervous that Christoffer Boe’s drama would remain stuck on a low boil, what with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s rising star chef berating an employee in front of the rest of the staff. Was there ever going to be a movie about the high-pressure restaurant scene that didn’t have a scene like this, or is it de rigueur by now? Ah…but I just had to get through that first course because Boe was about to serve up a surprisingly compelling and infinitely more satisfying feast.
Told in chapters divided by the combination of elements that go into the conception of the perfect dish, A Taste of Hunger is intrinsically the love story of Carsten (Coster-Waldau, The Silencing) and Maggi (Greis-Rosenthal), the co-owners of Malus, a new gourmet restaurant in Copenhagen. Hoping to create a signature dish so enticing the experience will earn them a coveted Michelin star, gaining that seal of approval would guarantee a level of success and a future both desire. Through the flashbacks, Boe chronicles how they first meet during a failed catering event Carsten is responsible for and how Maggi turns the awkward situation into a valuable springboard to his reaching for a higher goal. This bond establishes power dynamics in the relationship, continuing throughout the film, with Maggi being the driving force behind many big plays.
Maggi’s determination for Carsten to succeed is the focus of much of the present storytelling in between the flashbacks, and it exposes the weaker parts of an otherwise strong film. Though detailing the surprising number of sacrifices made to get them where they are makes for captivating viewing, the relentless drive for achievement makes some of the events in the final half-hour (which I won’t reveal) a bit frustrating to navigate. It’s precisely when the film starts to feel more dictated by norms of moviemaking than real life and when Boe’s characters begin to act like creations instead of humans.
Not that Greis-Rosenthal or Coster-Waldau can be faulted too much for that questionable ingredient in A Taste of Hunger because both give the kind of chemistry-driven performances (alone and together) that Hollywood can only dream of capturing on film. Coster-Waldau has always been a “is that Sean Bean?” actor to me, never breaking as big as he likely should have, yet he’s so good in everything he does it’s a wonder he hasn’t graduated to higher-profile roles. As good as Coster-Waldau is, this is Greis-Rosenthal’s movie, and she’s excellent in a tricky role that requires her to be determined in a way we can relate to but not judge her for it when she takes it a step too far. There’s a fine line to playing a part in managing scruples like this, especially for a woman, but Greis-Rosenthal finds a way to the heart of it without coming off as apologetic. Plus, there’s an electric spark between her and Coster-Waldau that is hard to deny; they feel well-matched and believable as this type of power couple.
Boe fills out his supporting cast with long-time collaborator Nicolas Bro (Riders of Justice) as Carsten’s brother, who holds little faith at the outset his sibling has the discipline to make it in the demanding world of culinary arts. Charlie Gustafsson is also strong as a disciple chef of Carsten’s, who grows up to be a rival for Maggi’s affections. Coming in late in the game to steal some scenes is Flora Augusta as Maggi and Carsten’s observant daughter, inadvertently impacting the lives of them all when she involves herself in part of the lives of her parents she doesn’t fully understand. Augusta is asked to play some heavy scenes but does it with extraordinary grace, never let down by Boe or her costars.
A Taste of Hunger is a well-done and effective film that I liked a great deal, and quite different than I thought it would be. It helped that I went in without any knowledge or expectation, and you should do the same. My advice would be the skip the trailer entirely because watching it after the fact sadly gives away multiple plot details that I would think the filmmakers would want to keep under wraps and let the audience be surprised. Once you watch the preview, you already know where things are headed, and that will certainly lessen the impact of Boe’s film and the intense work being done by Greis-Rosenthal and Coster-Waldau.