Great Moments in Cinema: Ratatouille

It has been said that film has the ability to transport us.  Whether it be to far off lands, other worlds, worlds that do not exist, or the distant past, films can take viewers to places they’ve never been before, or to places they could never visit in real life.  However, nothing has the ability to transport a person back into their own personal past quite like food.  Between the smell and the taste, food works on our senses in a very profound and personal way, and can often trigger deeply held memories that can take us all the way back to our earliest childhood.  Many films have tried to capture the essence of this relationship between food and our memories, but none of them illustrate the phenomenon better or more succinctly than Ratatouille (2007).

Directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles), the film tells the story of Remy (Patton Oswalt), an idealistic young rat who lives in the sewers beneath Paris, but dreams of someday becoming a great chef.  See, unlike other rats, Remy isn’t content to simply eat to stay alive.  No, Remy is a consummate foodie, and he loves the sense of excitement that comes with discovering new combinations of flavors and ingredients.  Of course, there is one major stumbling block preventing Remy from achieving his dream: he’s a rat, and they aren’t often welcome in fine dining establishments.  Thankfully, Remy meets the oafish but kind-hearted Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano), the new garbage boy at the once trendy Gusteau’s restaurant.  Together, they whip up a new dish that becomes instantly popular, and puts Gusteau’s back on the map.  In no time, Linguini is made head chef, and his newfound fame goes straight to his head (which is where Remy sits, hidden under Linguini’s toque).  This brings him to the attention of influential food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole), who challenges Linguini to make a dish that he will love.  Remy opts to cook the titular dish for the notoriously difficult writer, despite the fact that it is, as Linguini’s fellow chef and love interest Collette (Janeane Garofalo) puts it, a “peasant’s dish.”  When the plate is set before him, Ego is unimpressed, but the moment he takes a bite, he is whisked back to his childhood, reliving a memory that has been buried deep within him for decades.

Whenever people talk about what it is that makes Ratatouille a great film, they invariably point to the speech Ego delivers in the next scene, and rightfully so.  It is by far one of the best distillations of the role of criticism and its relationship to art ever presented in any medium, and it also serves as a nice reminder to the public that a critic’s job is not merely to write scathing reviews of mediocre garbage, but to get people excited about things that are new and different.  But while that scene is great and deserves all the praise heaped upon it, it tends to overshadow the preceding bit, which sums up the film’s central theme in a simple and elegant manner.

Anton Ego is one of the first characters to appear on screen in Ratatouille, and from the start he is presented as a scowling, snobbish, and almost cadaverous figure.  He is pale, thin, and hunched over, but also well-dressed and haughty.  He looks down at the world from behind his huge spectacles, and never misses an opportunity to tell people what he thinks, especially when it comes to food.  He seems to relish nothing more than tearing down any establishment or individual who fails to meet his impossibly high standards, but none more so than beloved Chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett), whose motto is “Anyone can cook.”  It is this simple philosophy that has earned him Ego’s eternal ire, and the audience is no doubt meant to find the critic’s stuck-up elitism to be unbearable, thus painting him as one of the film’s villains.  Indeed, even his home is designed to present him as some sort of monster; from the massive portrait of himself hanging on the wall of his coffin-shaped study, right on down to his typewriter that resembles a skull, everything about Anton Ego screams evil.

But Ego is not evil.  Not even a little.  He is simply jaded from having to sit by and watch as the one thing he loves more than anything else, in his case food, is constantly mangled and coldly manufactured by people who have no appreciation for it as anything other than a commodity.  To him, food is an art, and only the best will satisfy his appetite.  At one point, Linguini quips that Ego is too skinny to be a food critic, and Ego responds by saying, “I don’t LIKE food. I LOVE it. If I don’t love it, I don’t SWALLOW.”  Thus, Ratatouille is making a comment not only on food, but on all art, and the way in which critics receive it.  Contrary to popular belief, critics are not simply out to run down popular films, even though it may seem that way sometimes.  No, most critics enter the field of criticism out of a sense of love for whatever medium they are writing about, and wish to convey a little bit of their enthusiasm with others in the hopes that someone will take what they are saying to heart.  Of course, not all art needs to be new and different, and critics often point this out, making sure to highlight when an establishment serves great comfort food, or a film or book presents a familiar story well told.

That is why it is so significant when Anton Ego takes that first bite of Remy’s ratatouille, and is immediately transported back that day so long ago when his mother served him a similar dish.  Ego is reminded of why he fell in love with food in the first place, and it has nothing to do with how different or new or original the meal is.  Instead, it is a simple dish from his childhood served to him by someone who loved him that started an affair that would last a lifetime, and triggered within him a memory that left him overwhelmed with emotion.  It was such a powerful experience that Ego was willing to look past the fact that the meal was prepared by a lowly sewer rat, and exhort his readers to reassess Gusteau’s motto, writing that “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

The film presents this familiar idea in a graceful and powerful manner, with the scene that is the subject of this column serving as a perfect summation of Ego’s contention.  The scene starts with a close up on the glowering critic’s long face immediately after he swallows his first bite of Remy’s dish, and he registers a sense of profound shock.  Then an animated dolly zoom whisks the viewer decades into the past, as a despondent young Ego stands in the doorway of his mother’s house, a broken bicycle lying on the ground behind him as a single tear runs down his cheek.  His mother sits him down and serves him a bowl of homemade ratatouille, and the sad child is immediately mollified.  In addition to the vegetables, there was love cooked into that dish, and it was that love that Ego carried into his adulthood and tried to convey to others through his writing.  He never forgot that love; he just became bitter somewhere along the way, and it took Remy’s simple but incredible dish to remind him.  This is what art can do for us, whether it be new and exciting, or familiar but well-made.

People go to the movies to be transported, but most people prefer to be taken to places they are familiar with.  Critics, on the other hand, want to be taken places they’ve never been before, and that is why they champion things that are exciting and new.  However, they are not necessarily opposed to the familiar.  Often times, it is the familiar that reminds them why they wanted to become a critic in the first place.  It’s just that they demand more of the familiar, since they’ve experienced it again and again.  When something familiar reignites a critic’s passion and sends them on a fulfilling journey, they are quick to share their experience with others, in the hopes that they will be transported as well.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDK2azVSE5Q

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