During this season, many of us find ourselves venturing out to food-centric gatherings in which we are pressured to engage in a minefield of perfunctory small-talk. But, as awkward as it may be, chances are none will be as ungainly as those in which the leads of An Exquisite Meal engage. At just over an hour, writer/director Robert Bruce Carter serves up healthy portions of absurdist mockery of the bourgeoisie in his appetizing feature debut.
The plot is peripheral, merely as an excuse to collect a half-dozen young professionals that allows them to verbally volley their superficial concepts of self in a living-room-centered game of one-upmanship. The first guests to arrive are Beth (Victoria Nugent) and her husband Mark (Ross Magyar), who are looking to become pregnant through in vitro; not because either is sterile, but because they perceive the act of intercourse too violent for which to conceive a child. They are followed by the reticent Paul (Mark Pracht), who only introduces himself as “a friend of Annie’s,” including to Annie (Emily Marso) herself when she arrives. The final guest is the well-dressed and debonair Edouard (Bassam Abdelfattah), who knows no one within, but looks learned, well-heeled, and speaks with a French accent.
The party at the center of An Exquisite Meal is hosted by Dave (Mike Jimerson) and Irene (Amrita Dhaliwal), a young couple whose superficial sincerity elicits all the depth of a Twitter post. We’ve all met a version of them: after they ask about you, they mentally check out of the conversation to formulate their next question or accomplishment. The only time Dave seems truly impassioned is during his declaration of the titular meal he’s preparing that he describes in prosaic detail.
“…a half-dozen young professionals…verbally volley their superficial concepts of self…”
Several events mark the evening, none of which are tied together with a narrative thread, as An Exquisite Meal is more an exercise in social commentary. Those who enjoy the surrealist works of Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, Dogtooth) will be quite at home here. Class takes a drubbing as these characters’ privilege, and superficiality are on full display as they are all quick to profess their socially laudable activities (one teaches yoga to children in war-ravaged corners of the world) without pausing to actually contextualize why they are doing them.
After Mark vigorously details his meal, Beth confesses to her hosts that she’s gone gluten-free. This declaration comes as a surprise to her husband, who inquires when she stopped ingesting gluten. “This morning,” she says. “But you had a pastry for breakfast,” Mark replies. “After that, I did not feel well,” Beth states.
The characters are rich with similar empty-calorie conversations as they perpetually demonstrate vapidity and moral shortcomings. Despite the micro-budget, Carter uses staging and blocking to make the most of the one-location setting. The cast is uniformly engaging, each actor embracing the faux-confidence they espouse while demonstrating their crippling cowardice in times of true jeopardy.
The absurdist approach may frustrate those seeking more conventional storytelling, or a proper narrative for that matter. But for a sharpened skewering of internet-age snobbery, An Exquisite Meal is just the taste audiences are hoping to devour.
"…just the taste audiences are hoping to devour."