LFF #9 -- A Serious Man

From the London Film Festival: the Coen brothers are back

A Serious Man
dirs: Joel and Ethan Coen

"Just accept the mystery," is the advice of one character in the Coens' new film, and viewers should probably take heed. Lawrence Gopnik is a buttoned-up Jewish university lecturer in 1960s America and the Coens make lots of horrible things happen to him. He doesn't understand why, we don't understand why, and the various rabbis he visits can't explain why. Perhaps in response to the perceived glibness of their last film, Burn After Reading (I quite liked it, but plenty of others didn't), the Coens have gone for a portentous mix of religion, death and sexual frustration.

In their less flippant moments, the Coens show an interest in the way language can be twisted and used to dominate others: it's not a million miles away, in fact, from Harold Pinter. There's a scene here, in which Gopnik is verbally trampled on by a love rival, that really reminds me of The Birthday Party. The Coens may drape their ideas in pop-cultural references and knowing stereotypes (neurotic American Jews, in this case), but often something sinister and suffocating lies beneath.

When they're good, you sense an underlying thesis, however abstract it might be. (The Big Lebowski, for example, contained a loose allegory of the first Gulf war.) When they're not so good, the films carry the air of a set piece, a somewhat detached exercise in style. (Burn After Reading was a case in point, indicated by the neat but throwaway visual sequences that topped and tailed the film.)

A Serious Man sits somewhere between those two points. It does, however, contain at least one great joke. At the front of a crowded synagogue, one of the attendants lets slip an expletive as he lifts an unexpectedly heavy set of Torah scrolls: "Jesus Christ!"

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times