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How a musical epiphany saved Handel from ruin and despair

Handel did not praise his own works but there was one that he loved, Messiah, because in it he had redeemed himself.


Consuming passions: Handel’s appetite was as great as his talent, as depicted in Joseph Goupy’s etching The Charming Brute. Image: Bridgeman Art Library.

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was a prolific writer of fiction, journalism, biographies and plays. Born in Vienna to non-religious Jewish parents, he was a friend of Sigmund Freud, Richard Strauss and Theodor Herzl, among others. During the First World War, he became a pro-European pacifist; with the rise of Hitler, he fled first to England, then to New York and finally to Brazil, where he committed suicide with his wife in despair at world events. Zweig was fascinated by music and he provided the libretto for Strauss’s “Die Schweigsame Frau”, which, because Zweig was Jewish, was banned after four performances. Zweig also published a collection of “historical miniatures” about moments of genius and heroism, including this account of Handel’s composition of “Messiah”, printed here in a new translation – the first in over 70 years – by Anthea Bell.

On the afternoon of 13 April 1737, George Frideric Handel’s manservant was sitting at the ground-floor window of the house in Brook Street, very strangely occupied. He had found, to his annoyance, that his supply of tobacco had run out but he dared not leave the house. Handel had come home from rehearsal in a rage, his face bright red, the veins standing out like thick cords at his temples. He was now marching up and down on the first floor so vigorously that the ceiling was shaking: it was unwise to be negligent in his service on days when he was in such a fury. So the servant was seeking diversion from his boredom by puffing not elegant rings of blue smoke from his short clay pipe, but soap bubbles. He was amusing himself by blowing the brightly coloured bubbles out of the window and into the street.

Passers-by stopped, bursting a bubble here and there with their canes in jest as they laughed and waved, but they showed no surprise. For anything might be expected of this house: the harpsichord might suddenly play loud music by night; you might hear prima donnas sobbing as the choleric German, falling into a berserk rage, uttered threats against them for singing an eighth of a tone too high or too low. The neighbours in Grosvenor Square had long considered 25 Brook Street a madhouse.

The servant blew his bright bubbles silently and persistently. Then he suddenly gave a start of alarm as a dull thud made the whole house shake. The manservant jumped up and raced upstairs. He saw Handel lying motionless on the floor, eyes open and staring. The strong man was lying on his back groaning, or rather the groans were forcing their way out of him in short and increasingly weak grunts.

Now up from the floor below came Johann Christoph Schmidt, the master’s secretary and assistant. The two of them raised the weight of the man – his arms dangling limp, like those of a corpse – and laid him on the sofa. “Undress him,” Schmidt ordered the servant. “I’ll run for the doctor.”

Schmidt ran out without his coat, waving to all the coaches that trotted sedately by. At last, one of them stopped. Lord Chandos’s coachman had recognised Schmidt. “Handel is dying!” he cried out to the duke, whom he knew to be his beloved master’s best patron. The duke immediately told him to get into the coach, the horses were given a sharp crack of the whip, and they went to fetch Dr Jenkins from a room in Fleet Street where he was earnestly studying a urine sample. “It’s all the trouble he’s had that’s to blame,” lamented the secretary despondently. “They’ve plagued him to death, those damned singers and castrati, the scribblers and the carping critics, the whole wretched crew.”

In the house, the servant held the basin, Schmidt lifted Handel’s arm and the doctor cut into the vein. A jet of blood spurted up, hot, bright red blood, and the next moment a sigh of relief issued from the compressed lips. Handel took a deep breath and opened his eyes. They were still weary, faraway and unaware. The light in them was extinguished. Dr Jenkins bent lower. He saw that one eye, the right eye, was staring while the other looked livelier. He raised Handel’s right arm. It fell back as if dead. Then he raised the left arm. The left re­mained in its new position. Now Dr Jenkins knew enough.

When he had left the room Schmidt followed him to the stairs. “What is it?”

“Apoplexy. His right side is paralysed.”

“And will he – will he at least be able to work again? He can’t live without com­posing.”

Dr Jenkins was already on the stairs.

“No, he will never work again,” he said very quietly. “We may be able to save the man, but we have lost the musician.”

Schmidt stared at him with such despair in his eyes that the doctor felt stricken.

For four months Handel lived devoid of strength. The right half of his body remained dead. He could not walk, he could not write, he could not play a single note on the keyboard. He could not speak. When friends made music for him a little light came into his eyes and then his unwieldy body moved like that of a sick man in a dream. Finally the doctor, in desperation – for the maestro was obviously incurable – advised sending him to the hot baths at Aachen.

But under the frozen envelope there lived an incalculable strength. The huge man had not given up and, against the laws of nature, his will worked a miracle. The doctors at Aachen warned him not to stay in the hot baths for more than three hours at a time;  his heart would not survive any longer period, they said, and it could kill him. But his will defied death for the sake of life. To the horror of his doctors, Handel spent nine hours a day in the baths and with his will his strength grew. After a week he could drag himself around again; after a second week he could move his arm and he tore himself free from the paralysing toils of death.

On the last day before he was to leave Aachen, fully in control of his body, Handel stopped outside  the church. He had never been particularly devout, but now, as he climbed to the organ loft, he felt moved by something ineffable.

He touched the keys with his left hand. The notes sounded, ringing clear and pure. Now he tentatively tried the right hand that had been closed so long. And behold, the silver spring of sound leaped out. Slowly, he began to play, to improvise, and the great torrent of sound carried him away with it. Down below, anonymous, the nuns and worshippers listened. They had never heard a mortal man play like that before. Handel, his head humbly bent, played on and on. He had recovered the language in which he spoke to God, to eternity, to mankind.

“I have come back from Hades,” said George Frideric Handel proudly. The battle lust of old had returned to the 53-year-old musician. We find him now writing an opera, a second opera, a third, the great oratorios Saul and Israel in Egypt; he writes L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato; his creative desires well up as if from a long-dammed spring. But the times are against him. The queen’s death halts theatrical performances, then the Spanish war begins, the theatre remains empty and debts mount up. Such cold falls over London that the Thames freezes over. Next the singers fall ill.

Handel’s financial difficulties grow worse and worse. His creditors are dunning him, the critics are scathing, the public remains silent and indifferent, and gradually the struggling composer loses heart. A benefit performance has just saved him from im­prisonment for debt, but what a disgrace, to buy back his life as a beggar! Handel becomes more and more reclusive, his mind grows ever darker. In the year 1740 he feels a beaten, defeated man once more. His former fame is dust and ashes. Why, he sighs, did God let me rise from my sickbed if men are to bury me once more? A lost man, weary of himself, Handel wanders London by night. Sometimes he stops outside a church, sometimes he sits in a tavern, and sometimes he stares down from a bridge over the Thames and wonders whether it might not be better to cast off all his cares by making one determined leap.

One night he had been wandering in this way again. It was 21 August 1741 and the day had been warm and sultry. No one was still awake in the house in Brook Street. He used to come home from every walk with a melody, but now his desk was empty. There was nothing to begin, nothing to finish. Or no: not bare! There was a package and he quickly broke the seal. A letter lay on top from the poet Charles Jennens, who wrote to say that he was sending Handel  a new poem and he hoped the great genius of music, phoenix musicae, would look graciously on his poor words and carry them up on his wings through the ether of immortality. Handel started as if something terrible had touched him. Did this man mean  to mock him? He tore the letter in two. “The blackguard! The scoundrel!” he bellowed. Tears broke from his eyes and his body trembled with impotent rage. The disturbed, ruined man lay heavily on his bed.

But he could not sleep. Handel rose, went back into his study and once again lit the candle. Messiah, read the first page. He turned over the title leaf and began to read. At the first words he started up. “Comfort ye,” began the libretto. It was like magic, that phrase – no, not a phrase, it was an answer divinely given, the cry of an angel calling from the overcast skies to his heart. Handel heard the phrase as music, as hovering, calling, rushing, singing notes.

His hands shook as he turned page after page. Yes, he had been called, summoned. Every word entered into him with irresist­ible force. All his weariness was gone. Never before had he felt his powers so strongly, never before known the joy of creation streaming through him like this. Again and again the words poured over him like warm, redeeming light. And suddenly he shivered, for there, in the hand of poor Jennens, he read: “The Lord gave the word.”

He held his breath. Here was the truth: the Lord had given him the word; and behold, there the word was written, there it rang out, a word that could be repeated and transformed for ever: “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

Tears blurred Handel’s eyes, so mighty was the fervour in him. Hastily, he picked up his pen and began setting down notes. He could not stop. It carried him away, like a ship with all sails spread, running before a stormy wind.

When his manservant cautiously entered the room the next morning, Handel was still sitting at his desk writing. He did not reply when Schmidt timidly asked whether he could be of any help in copying the music, just uttered a low growl. No one ventured to approach him again and he did not leave the study for three weeks. Handel knew nothing of the hour in those weeks. He lived entirely in the sphere that measures time only by musical beat and rhythm; he moved only with the current that surged from him as the work flowed closer to the sacred rapids of its conclusion.

At last, on 14 September, the work was finished. What before had been only dry, sere language now  blossomed and sang, never to fade. The miracle of the will had been worked by the inspired soul, just as the paralysed body had once worked the miracle of resurrection. Handel rose to his feet, with difficulty. The pen dropped from his hand. The strength had gone out of him. His body was tired, his mind confused. He fell on his bed and slept like the dead.

His manservant knocked softly at the door three times that morning but no sound could penetrate the depths of that sleep. Handel lay motionless, like a dead hero on the field of battle after gaining the victory. When Handel still would not wake in the evening – he had been lying there for 17 hours – Schmidt went for the doctor again. He did not find him immediately, for Dr Jenkins had gone out to fish on the banks of the Thames. At last, though, the pony trotted off to Brook Street with the pair of them.

But there stood the manservant, waving to them with both arms. “He got up!” he shouted. “And now he’s eating like six porters. He ate half a Yorkshire ham in no time at all. I’ve had to pour him four pints  of beer, and still he asks for more.”

Sure enough, there sat Handel before a groaning board, like the Lord of Misrule. No sooner did he set eyes on the doctor than he began to laugh, and gradually it became a vast, an echoing, a booming, a hyperbolical laughter. “Devil take me!” cried Dr Jenkins in amazement.

Handel looked at him with a smile, his eyes sparkling. Slowly, he rose and went over to the harpsichord. He sat down, and softly, half speaking and half singing, began the melody of the recitative “Behold, I tell you a mystery” – the words from Messiah. But as soon as he brought his fingers down the music carried him away. On he played and on, singing, all the way to the final “Amen, amen, amen”. The room was almost shattered by those notes. Dr Jenkins stood there as if benumbed. And when finally Handel rose, the doctor remarked, with awkward admiration: “Good heavens, I never heard anything like that before. You must have been possessed by the Devil!” Handel turned away and said so softly that the others could hardly hear it: “No, I think it was God who possessed me.”

Several months later, two well-dressed gentlemen knocked at the door of the house in Abbey Street, Dublin, that he was then renting. They had heard that he meant to give the premiere of his new oratorio, Messiah here, even before London heard it. They had  come to ask whether the master might not  donate the takings of that premiere to the Society for Relieving Prisoners and to the sick in Mercer’s Hospital. But, of course, they  said, this donation would be the proceeds of the first performance only; profits from the others would still go to the master.

“No,” Handel said quietly, “no money for this work. I will never take money for it, never. It shall always go to the sick and the prisoners. For I was sick myself, and it cured me; I was a prisoner and it set me free.”

At last, on 7 April 1742, came the final rehearsal. The audience consisted of a few relations of the members of the chorus. A  couple here, a little group there sat dispersed  in isolation around the hall. But as soon as the choruses began to crash out like great  cataracts of sound, a strange thing happened. The separate groups involuntarily moved closer together on the benches, gradually forming a single dark block, listening spell­bound. When the “Hallelujah!” burst out for the first time it brought one man to his feet and all the others rose, too, as if at a signal; they felt you could not remain earthbound in the grip of such power, and stood to bring their voices a little nearer God. Then they went out to tell the news from door to door: a work of music had been written such as had never been heard on earth.

Six days later a crowd gathered outside the doors of the hall. The ladies had come without hoops in their skirts, the gentlemen wore no swords, so that there would be room for more people. Not a breath was to be heard when the music began. Then the choruses burst out with hurricane force and hearts began to tremble. Handel stood by the organ. He had intended to direct and conduct his work but he lost himself in it. The music became as strange to him as if he had never heard it before. And when the “amen” was raised at the end, his lips unconsciously opened and he sang with the chorus, sang as he had never sung in his life.

The floodgates were open. The river of music flowed on in him year after year. From now on, nothing could bow Handel, nothing could force the resurrected man back on to his knees. Once again the operatic society he had founded went bankrupt, once again his creditors came dunning him, but now he stood upright and survived all his trials. Old age gradually undermined his strength, weakened his arms. Gout afflicted his legs. At last his eyesight failed. But even with blind eyes, like Beethoven with deaf ears, still he wrote on.

Handel did not praise his own works but there was one that he loved, Messiah, because in it he had redeemed himself. Year after year he performed the work in London, always donating the proceeds, £500 each time, for the benefit of the hospital. On 6 April 1759, severely ill and 74 years old, he had himself led to the podium of Covent Garden once more.

There the blind man stood. He swung his arms in time. He sang as gravely and devoutly with the chorus as if he were standing, priestlike, at the head of his own coffin. Only once, when the trumpets sud­denly came in at the words “The trumpet shall sound”, did he start, looking up with his blind eyes as if he were ready now for  the Last Judgement.

Moved, his friends led the blind man home. They, too, felt it had been a farewell. On his bed, he was still quietly moving his lips. He would like to die on Good Friday, he murmured. This Good Friday would be 13 April, the date when the heavy hand had struck him down, the date when his Messiah was first performed. On the day when all  in him had died, he had risen again.

And sure enough, his unique will had power over death as well as life. On 13 April Handel’s strength left him. But as the empty seashell echoes to the roaring of the sea, so inaudible music surged within him, stranger and more wonderful than any he had ever heard. Slowly, its urgent swell freed the soul from the weary body, carrying it up into the weightless empyrean, flowing in the flow, eternal music in the eternal sphere. And on the next day, before the Easter bells began to ring, all that had been mortal in George Frideric Handel died at last. 

This is an edited excerpt from “The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel” in “Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures” by Stefan Zweig (Pushkin Press, £14.99)

 

Clockwise from top left: Moonlight, Phantom Thread, Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water
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The hand that feeds: how food scenes became the home of intimacy, sex and power in film

While food in general has been a big part of film over the past two years, it’s feeding scenes that stand out: from Phantom Thread’s BDSM omelette to Moonlight’s diner meal.

When was the last time somebody fed you? Not the last time your friend invited you round for dinner, or your partner cooked something delicious and romantic that you ate together. Not the last time you went to a nice restaurant and your date scooped a forkful of their meal into your mouth. When was the last time someone lived to serve your appetite, and your appetite alone?

Being fed is something that happens to people in an infantilised state. It suggests vulnerability. In this way, it is deeply, sometimes overly, intimate. When one person is eating and another isn’t – particularly in a sit-down, food-focused setting – traditional social dynamics become imbalanced, like being stark naked next to someone fully clothed, or a singer performing for an audience of one. As such, being fed can sit on a knife-edge of power dynamics: sometimes maternally nourishing, sometimes romantically intimate, sometimes exposing and uncomfortable. As a visual expression of the complexities of relationships, and with our need for food so often functioning as a metaphor for emotional needs and sexual desire, feeding scenes are particularly cinematic.

In fact, they are some of cinema’s most memorable: from Snow White accepting the evil witch’s apple in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the much-parodied food-as-foreplay sequence in 9 Weeks. I think of the sandwiches eaten early on in Psycho. When Marion arrives at the Bates Hotel, Norman Bates asks her, “Will you have supper here?” relaxing her by insisting “I was just about to, myself…” But once the sandwiches are prepared, Bates doesn’t eat. “It’s all for you. I’m not hungry. Please go ahead,” he insists. Marion, forced to eat alone, nibbles uncomfortably, and Bates watches closely. “You eat like a bird”, he says, comparing her to the stuffed birds dotted all around the room. It’s our first hint – along with his off-screen mother’s disembodied ranting about Mary “appeasing her ugly appetite with my food – and my son!” – that something is deeply wrong, as the proper dynamics of a meal are disturbed, and food openly discussed as a sexual metaphor.

While food in general has been a big part of film and film discussions over the past couple of years – from teenage girls snacking on un-consecrated wafers in Lady Bird to Get Out’s fruit loops and milk eaten (crucially, psychopathically) separately – it’s feeding scenes that stand out: from Phantom Thread’s BDSM omelette to Moonlight’s diner meal.

Perhaps no recent film privileges the role of food in relationships as highly as Moonlight (2016), which follows the coming-of-age of a gay black boy in Miami, Florida. “When it comes to food and film, its Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film Moonlight that paints food, and feeding, the most vibrantly,” Ruby Tandoh writes in her book Eat Up, in a section on the ways in which food functions as a language of caring. “The food is rich and exquisite and larger than life, but it’s not really the contents of the plate that counts. What matters, in each of these scenes, is that the meal sits there on the table between Chiron and the people who love him – a symbol of the most nurturing kind of love.” Moonlight explores the growing up of Chiron, in three acts (child, teenager and adult), and each of these acts contains at least one key scene in which Chiron is fed.

In an early scene, young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is sat in a plasticy diner in front of Juan, a stranger who has taken it upon himself to look after neglected Chiron. Juan sits casually, a milkshake in hand, but with no food for himself, while Chiron eats his fries with a fork, quickly and silently.

“You not gonna tell me what your name is?” Juan says. When Chiron makes no attempt to reply, Juan pulls the tray out of his reach. Chrion looks down and shuffles back into his seat, still sulkily silent. Juan laughs. “Oh, man, you know I wouldn’t do you like that. Anyway, I apologize, alright? I’m just trying to get you to say something.”

After a short car ride, we are at home with Juan and his girlfriend Teresa. Juan and Teresa have no plates before them, but are both watching Chiron silently make his way through a plate of chicken. “You don’t talk much but you damn sure can eat,” Juan laughs. “That’s alright, baby. You ain’t got to talk till you get good and ready,” says Teresa. Finally, he speaks. “My name’s Chiron.” Even at this early stage in the film, the relationship between emotional and physical nourishment is clear, as food seen as a gateway to trust and familiarity.

When Chiron is older, he still relies on Teresa for this nourishment. In the film’s second act, Theresa tries to joke with a teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) as he eats (again, she herself does not), but Chiron, anxious and sullen, doesn’t bite, instead looking down at his plate. Theresa gently, lovingly insists he sit up and speak. “Stop putting your head down in my house. You know my rule, it’s all love and all pride in this house. You feel me? I can’t hear you. Do you feel me?”

These dynamics reappear in Chiron’s romantic relationship as a grown man. Now muscular and masculine but still shy and reserved, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) meets up with Kevin (André Holland), the object of his childhood affections, in the diner he runs. This diner scene, for many the iconic image of the film, is stretched out until it twitches with sexual tension, full of long silences and extended eye contact, running at an almost painfully long fifteen minutes. “You ain’t changed one damn bit,” Kevin observes. “You still can’t say more than three words at a time, huh?” Without missing a beat, Chiron speaks. “You said you was gonna cook for me. I know how to say that.”

We watch Kevin prepare the chef’s special with skill and care. Kevin brings it over to Chiron in a window booth, insists they share a bottle of wine, and attentively watches him eat his meal. When Chiron drops a bit on the table, and eats it with his fingers, popping it in his mouth, Kevin laughs. “I saw that, I saw that!” When Chiron is reluctant to share more personal details of his life, Kevin refuses to let it slide. “I’ve been back there in that kitchen, man, and cooked for your ass and everything. Hey, these grandma’s rules, man. You know the deal: your ass eat, your ass speak.”

Kevin’s joking about “grandma’s rules” points towards the larger significance of Moonlight’s meals: food is the tool that allows Kevin, Theresa, and Juan to enter Chiron’s life intimately, in both parental and romantic roles. For someone like Chiron – lonely, neglected, whose appetites and needs don’t take centre stage in his own childhood home – meals like this become the times where he is most vulnerable, and most open to love.

Parallels have been drawn between Moonlight and Sean Baker’s exploration of impoverished childhood The Florida Project (2017), even by Barry Jenkins himself. Moonee, The Florida Project’s central character, is, like Chiron, the child of a single mother in desperate circumstances (they live in a $38 a night motel called The Magic Castle, near Florida’s Disney World). But Moonee’s mother Halley is more caring, and present, and is at her most nurturing when feeding her child.

In one scene, we watch from Halley’s perspective as Moonee eats her weight in food at an all-you-can-eat hotel breakfast buffet Halley has sneaked them into. Moonee wolfs down bacon and fruit and pastries, and drinks a huge glass of orange juice in a single gulp. She is thrilled: “I wish I had a bigger stomach – like I was pregnant! I could fit food in there... We’ve gotta come here again. This is the life man! Better than a cruise!” The whole scene is a performance: Halley pretends to be a normal hotel guest on holiday with her child, Moonee in turn plays up her enjoyment for her mother. But it’s a performance that allows Halley and Moonee to have a loving, normal mother-daughter relationship, even if it’s short-lived. Halley simply watches her overexcited daughter quietly, smiling beatifically. As her daughter is at her most effusive and childlike, delighting in life’s simple pleasures, Halley is at her most maternal.

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016) can also be compared to Moonlight: here is a colder imagining of queer love in a diner. Lonely, isolated Montanan ranch hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) falls for a young lawyer, Beth (Kristen Stewart) when she accidentally walks into her law class. After class, Jamie offers to take Beth to a diner. Over three scenes in that diner, Reichardt explores Jamie’s unreciprocated interest in Beth: in each, Beth eats while Jamie watches eagerly, ordering no food for herself.

In the first, Beth eats a sad-looking burger and complains about the long journey ahead of her. In the second, she eats a bowl of soup, while Jamie, again, only watches. Beth asks Jamie, businesslike, “Do you happen to know anyone in town who could teach my class?” Jamie chuckles sheepishly and says, “I don’t know anyone at all.” It’s overly intimate – Jamie wants Beth to ask about her loneliness. Her soft smile is the one of someone being examined by a new lover. Beth looks at her soup and asks Jamie vaguely about her job working with horses. Jamie responds with childhood anecdotes about her and her brothers sneaking out at night to ride wild horses, smiling that same embarrassed smile.

The third and final time the two arrive at the diner, it’s on horseback. Emboldened by the mere mention of her horses in their last conversation, when Beth agrees to share a ride to the diner, Jamie surprises her by bringing out her horse. The two ride the horse in silence. In the diner, biting into a grilled cheese, Beth offers Jamie some of her fries. Jamie, as ever, declines to eat, but stares unbreakingly at Beth, asking her a question that picks up on the last throwaway comment Beth made the last time they were at the diner: clearly, she’s been running that conversation over in her mind, thinking of something to ask her. It’s painful to watch such undivided, unreciprocated attentions, and Jamie’s misreading of the scene leads to an awkward declaration of feeling later in the film.

7,000 miles away, Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country (2017) too explores queer desire in an isolated, rural setting. Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is a closeted Yorkshire farm worker with a drinking problem, used to denying himself life’s pleasures. The arrival of stunningly handsome Romanian farmhand Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) catches Johnny off-guard.

The first time they eat together, Johnny tears into a pot of instant noodles without putting a flavour packet in; Gheorghe empties his packet into his noodles quietly and slowly. They are silent and avoid eye contact. The second time, it’s early, the morning after their first sexual encounter. Gheorghe watches silently as Johnny forks noodles into his mouth. “What?” he asks, uncomfortable. “I’m starving, me.” The third time, after watching Gheorghe begin to pour his flavour packet into his noodles, Johnny holds his own cup towards him. Gheorghe shares his packet. Again, Gheorghe watches Johnny eat. Eventually Johnny is too uncomfortable under his gaze, and finishes his noodles inside, alone. But later, as their relationship develops, we see Gheorghe cook for Johnny, even tasting it and salting his food for him, and they begin to actually enjoy food together.

Shared pleasure in food as a form of romance pops up again In Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017), set in rural Italy in 1983. Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Elio (Timothée Chalamet) fall in love around the breakfast table, amongst fragrant peach trees. During their first breakfast together, Oliver begins by helping himself to an egg. He taps it with his teaspoon so violently he smashes the whole egg into a runny mess of yolk and bits of shell. The maid takes it away, he takes a second, and breaks into it with a little more restraint. Elio is eating a peach, chewing on it as his parents and Oliver chat about the fruit trees. Oliver begins hurriedly eating his egg, making appreciative noises, dripping liquid yolk all over the table, and is soon offered another. “No, no, no I know myself too well – if I have a second I’m just gonna have a third, and then a fourth, and you’re just gonna have to roll me out of here. Delicious.” Elio pauses from his chewing to watch, intently.

The next time we see Oliver eat an egg, it’s in close-up, with ridiculous squelching noises. Though Guadagnino has insisted there is nothing sexual about this moment, only Epicurean, (even insisting in his defence “We didn’t do a close-up of that”, but I beg to differ – see above), the dialogue during the scene at least links Oliver’s egg eating to sex. “We almost had sex last night,” Elio says to his father, while Oliver eats. Then adds, “Marcia and me.” Of course, it is peaches that are the film’s most sexualised food. And, as Dan Q Dao writes in Munchies, the original novel contains an even more explicit version of the scene, as Oliver eats a peach Elio has had sex with, while Elio watches.

Call Me By Your Name is not the only film this year offering audiences a sexy egg. Eggs are more deliberately sexualised in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017), set in Baltimore in 1962. Every morning, cleaner Elisa (Sally Hawkins) masturbates in the bath in the time it takes her to boil two eggs to take to work. Later, when she first meets the fish-man creature the laboratory she cleans is experimenting on, she feeds him the very same eggs – which he devours with visible pleasure. Is this human feeding animal, mother feeding child, or lover feeding lover? Eggs bond them – “egg” is the first word she teaches him in sign language, and the eggs she brings him every day soon become tokens of love, as Elisa lines them up on the edge of his tank, making eyes at him.

In the film’s most unambiguous exploration of Elisa’s feelings for the amphibian man, the two sit at opposite ends of a long table, while the creature eats an entire plate of boiled eggs. As Elisa watches him eat, she sings along with the song on the radio, and the scene melts into an old Hollywood fantasy, where Elisa swirls around a stage with the creature in her arms. We cut back to the dinner table: the creature is studiously peeling his eggs, oblivious. When Elisa feeds the amphibian man, it both brings them closer together, and serves to emphasise the gulf between them in their experiences of the world.

In all these films, the relationship between food and sex is romantic, pleasant, or at least fairly safe. But in Julia Ducournau’s French film Raw (2016), food and sex are dangerously, violently linked. During an initiation ceremony at her second day of veterinary school, vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) is forced to eat raw rabbit’s kidneys.

It brings her out in a bright red rash – and sees her develop an insatiable craving for raw meat, sex, and even human flesh. Slowly but surely, Justine starts eating other people. As the film goes on, her primal, cannibalistic desire becomes indistinguishable from lust.

Food is dangerous, too, in Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled .When wounded soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) ends up at all-female boarding school in Civil War-era Virginia, his presence is an unwanted, but nevertheless thrilling. Three dinner scenes between teachers Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) with their five pupils explore the tensions he brings into the home. In the first, the women mediate on the lessons his arrival could teach them. In the second, they are joined by the Corporal himself, each of the girls taking their moment to try and impress him. They take the odd bite of their meal, but their attentions are focused on McBurney, who is forced into a performative tummy-rubbing appreciation: “This is the finest meal I can remember”.

The third comes after McBurney has threatened, at gunpoint, to murder the women. They decide to protect themselves and dispose of him by feeding him a poison version of his favourite mushroom dish. “Corporal, we’d like to let you know that we harbor no ill feelings, and made this meal in commemoration of your journey ahead,” Miss Martha insists. As the mushrooms are passed to the Corporal, none of the girls help themselves. As he piles his plate high, the girls stare on and neglect their own plates. Coppola’s stage directions repeatedly emphasise how the women keep their gazes fixed on McBurney: “All eyes are on him”; Jane, Emily and Amy “stare”; “They all watch as McBurney eats up the mushrooms”; “The girls watch him”; “The united women calmly watch”. Of course, unbeknownst to McBurney, the intensity of their undivided attention and their own refusal to eat the mushrooms is a sign that something deeply suspicious is happening.

Ultimately, any intimate act is so because it holds a level of risk, and requires an element of trust. Here, the vague danger that comes with accepting food from another person is taken to its logical conclusion. Within a few seconds of eating, McBurney lies dead on the floor.

Strangely, The Beguiled is not the only film of 2017 featuring a woman feeding a threatening man poison mushrooms to regain control. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, the dining table at 1950s London dressmakers the House of Woodcock is as fraught as that of a Civil War boarding school. Phantom Thread explores the complexities of hunger and sexual desire perhaps more explicitly than any other film this year: at the New Yorker, Helen Rosner calls in “one of the great food movies in recent memory”. Difficult, self-mythologizing 1950s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock has a complex relationship with his work, alternating between discipline and spontaneity, self-denial and self-expression. His relationship with food oscillates, too: sometimes it is one of control and deprivation, other times an ecstatic binge. When he is happy, inspired, or aroused, Woodcock eats with relish.

When he first meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), she is a waitress in a seaside café – from her, Reynolds orders an endless breakfast: “A Welsh rarebit. With a poached egg on top – not too runny. Bacon. Scones. Butter. Cream. Jam – not strawberry. A pot of Lapsang souchong tea. And some sausages.” She delivers it to him, along with a note: “To the hungry boy.” Food remains the sire of their flirtation and their battleground.

As Reynolds’ relationship with Alma develops, her relaxed approach to food enrages him. She butters her toast too loudly, slurps her cereal obscenely. She violates the sanctity of his breakfast by eating enthusiastically. “If breakfast isn’t right,” Reynold’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) explains, “it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day.” When Alma brings him tea in the afternoon, he balks. “No, Alma, what are you doing? Don’t put the tray on the table, please. Just take it off. I didn’t ask for tea.” When she replies that the tea is going out, he snaps, “The interruption is staying right here with me.” When Alma rejects the conventions of the household to prepare a surprise dinner for Reynolds, he makes no attempt to conceal his disdain: “As I think you know, Alma, I prefer my asparagus with oil and salt. And knowing this, you’ve prepared the asparagus with butter. Now, I can imagine in certain circumstances being able to pretend that I like it made this way. Right now, I’m just admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you’ve prepared it.” Perhaps their worst argument ensues.

In these moments, Alma is a nuisance, or worse, a threat to the stability and order or the House of Woodcock, forever interrupting Reynolds with inconvenient reminders of troublesome human desires: food, sex, emotional intimacy. But when Woodcock is invigorated, inspired, and happy to give in to his wants, both Alma and food become much more enticing prospects. ”Do we have porridge?” he says brightly to his cook one morning. “Do we have cream? Thick cream? That’s what I’d like. Oh, Alma, would you like some porridge?”

Ultimately, Reynolds fluctuates between desiring power and control, and desiring its opposite. Understanding this, Alma is able to slowly, carefully, become the dominant party. Of course, it’s food – and feeding – that enables her to do this. The film’s final scenes shows Alma preparing a poisoned mushroom omelette for Reynolds: that will force him back into a vulnerable, infantilised, pathetic state, and put her in the position of controlling caregiver. “I want you flat on your back,” Alma whispers, “helpless, tender, open, with only me to help.” Reynolds smiles. It’s a state he desires sexually, emotionally and physically as the film’s insistent final words make unavoidably clear. “I’m getting hungry,” Reynolds says. We cut to black.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.