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Bad to the bone: John Gray on Italian fascist Curzio Malaparte’s lost masterpiece

The Skin, published now in the first ever complete English translation, captures the delirium and cruelty of Europe in the Second World War in surreal and amoral prose.


Image: Roibert Doisnea/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

As seen by the Italian writer Curzio Mala­parte, the liberation of Naples by Allied forces in 1943 was the blackest of comedies. Desperately short of food after years of bombing had destroyed the city’s infrastructure, Naples was a seething ruin in which everything was for sale. Priests stripped the churches of anything of value; prostitution was near universal and syphilis epidemic; and the population staged a frantic show of welcoming the liberating armies, “singing, clapping, jumping for joy amid the ruins of their houses, unfurling foreign flags which until the day before had been emblems of their foes”.

Presenting a version of an incident that may have occurred in real life, the narrator of The Skin (who is also called Malaparte) recounts how the American high command dined with local dignitaries on rare fishes taken from the city’s aquarium. Adding a Dalí-esque touch of horror, Malaparte has the last of the feasts feature a dead child, served up on a platter encircled with a wreath of coral. Corpses of children were a common sight at the time and there is more than a hint of cruelty in his account of the Americans turning “pale and horror-stricken” at the spectacle of one of these pitiful figures laid out on the table.

Malaparte’s fictional alter ego describes Colonel Jack Hamilton, the American officer to whom he has been assigned as a guide to the city, as “a Christian gentleman” who had “landed in Italy for the purpose of fighting the Italians and punishing them for their sins and crimes”. An innocent, magnanimous soul, he could not be expected to know that “without the existence of evil there can be no Christ; that capitalist society is founded on the conviction that in the absence of beings who suffer a man cannot enjoy to the full his possessions and his happiness; and that without the alibi of Christianity capitalism could not prevail”. Containing many such passages of savage invective, this book is a sustained assault on every kind of piety. It is hardly surprising that when it was published in 1944 The Skin was placed on the Vatican index of prohibited books.

Like his alter ego, Malaparte joined the US forces as a liaison officer when they entered Naples. It has been suggested he may have become an intelligence asset to the Americans around the same time. In any event, working for them was only one, and not the last, of many shifts in the loyalties of the mercurial Italian writer. Born Kurt Suckert in Tuscany in 1898, the son of an Italian mother and a German father, he adopted in 1925 the pen name of Malaparte – a punning reference to Napoleon Bonaparte (in Italian, buonaparte means “good side”). His new name may have been meant to suggest how contradictory the life of a writer in politics can be. If so, he was well equipped for the role.

Along with many in the European avant-garde, Malaparte embraced fascism not despite, but because of its celebration of violence. Serving as a volunteer in the Italian army for four years during the First World War, he suffered permanent damage to his health as a result of exposure to mustard gas. Yet, far from condemning war, he regarded it as an opportunity for a rare kind of experience in which death and destruction become in some way beautiful. He was not unusual in taking this view. A contemporary of his, the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, expressed similar sentiments, as did many of the futurists. Their perverse aestheticism proved to be one of the cultural omens of the rise of fascism.

Joining Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922, urging a strategy of terror against anti-Fascists, travelling to the Eastern Front with Nazi forces when Hitler invaded Russia and accompanying pro-German forces in the forests of Finland, Malaparte was clearly attracted by fascism. Yet a certain refractoriness, coexisting with his slippery opportunism, led to repeated difficulties with his Fascist masters. Starting in 1933, when he seems to have displeased Mussolini – some say by describing Hitler as having a “feminine” nature, others suggesting that he mocked the Italian dictator’s taste in neckties – Malaparte suffered several years of banishment. However, these were passed mostly in pleasant holiday spots, where he lived a hedonistic life as the guest of rich and well-connected friends, so they were not exactly a fearful punishment.

It seems to have been during this period that he conceived the idea of designing and building “a house like me”, the Casa Malaparte, on the island of Capri. Showing no trace of the oppressive monumental style that was in favour in Mussolini’s Italy (Malaparte soon fell out with the prominent Fascist architect he had commissioned for the project), the house is recognised as one of the most remarkable examples of modern European architecture. In a characteristically convoluted conceit, he tells in The Skin of a visit by the German general Erwin Rommel, who asked if he had built the house himself. Malaparte replied that he had bought it, and then, with a sweeping gesture towards the magnificent landscape, declared: “I designed the scenery.” Perched on the cliff edge, a brilliant red structure with pyramidal stone steps and vast roof terrace, the building can be seen in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Le Mépris (1963), an adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s 1954 novel Il disprezzo (translated as Contempt), featuring Jack Palance and Brigitte Bardot.


On the edge: the Capri house bespoke the man. Image: Rex.

A talented and highly versatile survivor, Malaparte was a playwright, film-maker and novelist, the author of a treatise on the technique of the coup d’état and a slightly shady diplomat. But he saw himself above all as a writer creating a new type of fiction, a species of wilfully unreliable reportage in which the most gruesome episodes are recounted with terrifying gaiety. In Kaputt (1943), a hallucinatory version of his travels through Nazi-occupied Europe, he produced a dark masterpiece of magic realism. Ranking with the best of Céline as one of the most powerful expressions of European despair, The Skin tells of the horror of the everyday struggle for survival in a society destroyed by war.

“Our skin, this confounded skin,” Malaparte’s alter ego exclaims to a group of Allied officers. “You’ve no idea what a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish, to save his skin . . . They think they are fighting and suffering to save their souls, but in reality they are fighting and suffering to save their skins, and their skins alone.” As Malaparte had witnessed, the inhabitants of Naples were ready to sell themselves and their children for a crust of bread. This was not a pattern of behaviour peculiar to Neapolitans – he always stressed that he admired the city and its people – but a universal human trait, which he regarded as more destructive than war.

If Malaparte’s wartime novels have long been neglected, one reason is that they remind us how deeply many of Europe’s intellectuals were complicit in the rise of fascism. Paul de Man, Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and a host of lesser-known worthies flirted shamelessly with fascism, surfacing safely after the war was over as respectable stalwarts of the radical left. Though he took more risks along the way, Malaparte followed a similar course, veering towards Maoism in the Fifties, meeting the Chairman and in some accounts bequeathing the house he built on Capri to the People’s Republic of China. The trajectory may sound surprising, but in fact it was quite commonplace.

Where Malaparte was distinctive was in his awareness of the contradictions inherent in the positions he adopted. Reporting in 1941 from the Russian front for the influential Corriere della Sera as the only front-line war correspondent in the entire USSR, he forecast correctly that the Russian forces would not collapse as a result of the German advance, but fight on regardless. Having breached the German propaganda line, he was ordered out of the war zone by Goebbels and sent back to Italy for another spell of house arrest.

Malaparte’s despatches were not inspired by any sympathy for the Soviet cause. Rather than seeing it as an Asiatic or Russian perversion of Marxist ideals, as do many disappointed leftists, he viewed Soviet communism as a distinctively European pathology. Equally, Nazism and fascism were not aberrations from an essentially sound civilisation. All these totalitarian movements reflected deep-seated disorders in European civilisation. Malaparte displayed many of these disorders, his late conversion to Maoism being one more expression of a European fascination with ideological violence.

Part of his power as a writer comes from these contradictions. The uncertainty that surrounds his narrator – is he a version of the author, or a fictional character? – not only is a literary technique but reflects his self-division. His writings are full of toxic stereotypes, sexist, racist and homophobic. Yet it is impossible to be sure whether these displays of prejudice were sincere, or rather – as he seems at times to intimate – whether they serve as cryptic expressions of solidarity with the people who are being stereotyped. He has an Allied officer in The Skin ask the narrator, “with an urbanely ironical air”: “How much truth there is in all that you relate in Kaputt?” I suspect that Malaparte, a self-mocking provocateur whose life was a succession of performances, did not know the answer. Paradoxically, it may have been his lack of any coherent self that enabled him to portray the chaos of wartime Europe with such authenticity.

It is well known that a great writer may be a repellent person – we need only think of Dostoevsky. We are less ready to accept that moral defects may be a necessary part of a writer’s art. Yet this seems to have been the case with Malaparte, whose feverish and fractured consciousness enabled him to be a mirror of his time. If you want a vividly realistic picture of the state of Naples when it was liberated, you should turn to Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44 – another blackly comic book that is also luminously sane. If you want to enter into the delirium and cruelty of the period, it is The Skin you must read.

For many years Malaparte was neglected as an embarrassing reminder of the ignominious accommodation that so many of the European intelligentsia reached with dictatorship. Though his political record was no worse than many of his generation, the flamboyance with which he had flaunted his fascism left him beyond the pale of polite society. If he resented this exclusion, he had his revenge when, not long before he died in 1957, he was admitted into the Catholic Church and the Italian Communist Party. Further recognition was slow in coming. Until it was renovated by his grand-nephew, the house in Capri was in disrepair for decades after the war. More recently, a restaurant in New York City was named after the writer.

Now the indispensable New York Review Books, which published Kaputt in 2005, has given us the first complete translation into English of The Skin. An embodiment of Europe’s bad conscience, Malaparte’s voice was one that right-thinking people of every denomination preferred not to hear. That is why this difficult book was so hated and condemned when it first appeared, and remains so well worth reading. 

The Skin by Curzio Malaparte, translated by David Moore and introduced by Rachel Kushner, is published by New York Review Books Classics, 368pp, £9.99

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)

 

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

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.