Muriel Spark. CREDIT: DIMITRI KASTERINE/CAMERA PRESS
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A look at the long prime of novelist Muriel Spark on the centenary of her birth

Catholic and rational, profound and comic, Scottish and international: the novelist squared circle after circle.

Martin Amis, displaying his customary terror of the first person singular, once described Graham Greene as the first serious writer “you came across”, the one “we happened to read” before “we read anybody else”. Greene, Amis wrote – stepping marginally closer to confessional territory – had served as “an awakener”, and what he awakened was a taste for Literature, a property that his writing embodied in a pleasing, plotty form.

Assuming this role for later generations looks an immeasurably taller order. Greene, by cross-breeding the novel in its earnest and ethical mode with the devices of the thriller and the yarn, helped to create an appetite for the Catholic tradition as well as for godless existentialism, and for such heroic forebears as Conrad, James, and Dostoevsky. But who could prepare the budding reader in the 1980s or 1990s or today for such multifarious challenges as, say, the po-faced nouveau roman, the postmodern jeu d’esprit, the whodunit that shows its working, the medieval mystery with a semiotic treatise tucked inside?

The leading and only obvious candidate is Muriel Spark, who was born in Edinburgh just over a hundred years ago, and who now more than ever looks like the standout British novelist of the later 20th century. Spark’s novels – 22 in all – are the product of a ruthlessly confident, even clairvoyant sensibility, and fuse an impossible range of tones and strengths. “For a soi-disant parable-writer, she is surprisingly social in her comedy,” the novelist Ronald Frame writes in his superb introduction to The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), part of a complete reprinting of Spark’s novels by the Edinburgh-based publisher Polygon. Her prose is icily impudent and briskly profound, “cruel and lyrical at the same time” – to borrow her own description of the Scots Border ballads that she read as a girl, which provided her earliest model in straddling other borders, such as being both dense and spare. (She later took a course in précis-writing.)

The Spark centennial has been an almost exclusively Scottish affair. The main event is an exhibition – small but heaving – at the National Library of Scotland, which holds Spark’s papers. The only new book to appear, apart from Virago’s ill-judged compendium, The Observing Eye: the Sayings of Muriel Spark, is the memoir, Appointment in Arezzo, by Alan Taylor, founder of the Scottish Review of Books and the series editor of the new collected edition. BBC Scotland commissioned an hour-long documentary, presented by Kirsty Wark, and featuring Val McDermid, Janice Galloway and Ali Smith, three of the contributors to Radio 3’s week-long series of Essays. During an event at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall in January, Nicola Sturgeon talked of her love for Spark, and there have been calls for a Spark statue and banknote.

“She always said that she was Scottish by formation,” the novelist Ian Rankin told me recently, when we met at the National Library. But he views Spark more specifically as a product of Edinburgh, “the city of haves and have-nots, where a New Town had to be created because the Old Town was ridden with slums”. Rankin recalled the scene in Spark’s best-known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), in which Miss Brodie, a teacher eager to develop a cult of personality, leads her class on a tour of streets whose names “betokened a misty region of crime and desperation”, a virtual “foreign country” which “intimates itself by its new smells and shapes and its new poor”.

The idea of division was a challenge to be faced down. Writing in the New Statesman in 1962, Spark said that the Edinburgh “habit of thought” could be summed up in the word “nevertheless”, pronounced “niverthelace” and delivered with a gleam of the eye. Spark left Edinburgh when she was 18, but she confessed to being “fairly indoctrinated” by what she called “the nevertheless idea”, the belief that contradictory ideas might co-exist, or have equal validity. Rankin pointed out that Jean Brodie had been named after one of the great examples of the embodiment of contradictory impulses called the “Caledonian antisyzygy”: Deacon Brodie, a celebrated local politician who was hanged after being exposed as a burglar.

Class act: Maggie Smith stars in the 1969 film version of Spark’s book The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Credit: AF Archive / Alamy

I first learned of Spark’s existence in my early teens. A review of The Truman Show noted the film’s debt to The Comforters, the novel about a critic – and Catholic convert – trapped in a novel, which Spark published in 1957 when she was 39, after her own conversion to Catholicism and fiction-writing from a Jewish upbringing (her father, Bernard Camberg, had been born in Lithuania), a traditional Presbyterian education and a long apprenticeship as an editor, biographer and poet. I remembered the name some years later – how could you not? – reading David Lodge’s elegant primer The Art of Fiction, where the use of flash-forwards in Jean Brodie was characterised as “a typical postmodernist strategy, calling attention to the artificial construction of the text”. Here, these references seemed to say, was a writer interested in the nature of what she was doing, possibly at the expense of the doing itself.

But Lodge – on this occasion, anyway – missed the intricacy of Spark’s approach, her ability to have it both ways. “Make it a straight old-fashioned story, no modern mystifications”, one character advises in The Comforters – the first of a run of keen-eyed, fleet-footed comedies, published between 1957 and 1963, which proved that this novelist wasn’t subject to the usual limitations. (The same could be said of Thomas Pynchon, another comic, and Catholic, explorer of the world as a legible, plotted place.)

The occasional hint of things to come hardly prevents us from “‘losing ourselves’”, as Lodge put it, “in the temporal continuum of the fictional story or in the psychological depth of the central character”. The knowledge that Miss Brodie will die, broken-hearted, aged 55, cannot erode her vitality, or the ringing pathos of her plight. And Spark’s text is no more artificial, no more a product of language, than the world she presents. The narrator tells us repeatedly that Miss Brodie’s pupil, Rose Stanley, was “famed” or “inescapably famous” for sex, before revealing that Rose “did not really talk about sex, far less indulge it”. The reason that Rose and company cannot “escape” being the Brodie set was that they had become “the Brodie set” in the eyes of the school. You could even say that the “prime” in the novel’s title should be in quote marks, since it identifies nothing more than Miss Brodie’s formulaic-robotic assurance that, “I am in my prime”.

But then Spark undermines the idea of the scare quote. Words, in her handling, are as “real” as acts, as hard as sticks and stones: at one point, we read that the girls’ group identity “had worked itself into their bones, so that they could not break away without, as it were, splitting their bones to do so”. An exchange in Ian McEwan’s would-be Sparkish novel, Sweet Tooth, tried to carve her work along realist/experimental lines, into novels with “tricks” and those that “recreate life” – Jean Brodie being placed in the latter camp – and only succeeded in showing how effectively she outwitted the binary-hugging temperament. (Frank Kermode once began a sentence in this magazine, “Mrs Spark, who can do anything…”)

But Spark’s fiction doesn’t stop at providing a critique of the novel alongside a masterclass in novel aesthetics. She also delivers a serial portrait of the writer as a human type – the dualist who seeks to make a whole. (It’s a trick that McEwan attempted in Atonement as well as Sweet Tooth.) In Jean Brodie, the teenage novelist Sandy Stranger conducts a “double life”, a phrase whose various applications include her uniting of Miss Brodie’s much-trumpeted categories of “instinct” and “insight”. Dougal Douglas, also known as Douglas Dougal, the writer-figure in The Ballad of Peckham Rye – a sort of vatic farce – is at once devil and exorcist, someone whose lies produce “a kind of truth”, as Spark said of her own writing.

An adherence to Catholicism, the religion of paradoxes, is frequently allied with the creative temperament. Sandy becomes a nun; Dougal a Franciscan monk; Nicholas, the poet in The Girls of Slender Means (1963), the last of the early novels, is martyred on a Jesuit mission in Haiti; while at a lower level of commitment, Fleur, in the best of the later novels, Loitering with Intent (1981), is also a convert. (Sandy turns against Miss Brodie because she conducts herself like “the God of Calvin”, enlisting Rose as a sexual go-between, persuading a naïve new pupil to fight for Franco.)

****

Ian Rankin told me that he had been heartened by the recent celebrations because, as he put it, Scotland hasn’t always been so good at celebrating writers, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, “who didn’t stay”. The National Library show, entitled “The International Style of Muriel Spark”, is devoted to a life spent far afield. On leaving school, the author married Sidney Oswald Spark. It was supposed to be her dash for freedom, though she soon found herself living in Rhodesia with a depressed husband and a dependent child. In 1944, she left Sidney, sent her son Samuel to be raised by his grandparents, and moved to London, where she lived through the experiences that helped to furnish three decades’-worth of books – staying in a hostel in west London (The Girls of Slender Means), serving as the embattled editor of the Poetry Review (Loitering with Intent), falling in and out with the sinister hack Derek Stanford, her sometime lover and collaborator (A Far Cry from Kensington, 1988), and suffering a nervous breakdown before finding God and the Novel (The Comforters).

In the late 1960s, following a stint in New York, Spark moved to Rome and then Tuscany, where, apart from a long-running epistolary stand-off with Samuel – who had changed his name to Robin and become an Orthodox Jew – she passed four markedly conflict-free decades with her companion, the sculptor Penelope Jardine. (When Spark died, aged 88, in 2006, she left Jardine her entire estate, and her son nothing.)

One of the show’s many starry moments is a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, in her capacity as a Doubleday editor, offering $100,000 for “world rights” to Spark’s memoir, Curriculum Vitae. Spark declined, and no wonder – the exhibition’s first display is emblazoned with images of Spark’s books from every imaginable “territory”: La Plenitud de la señorita BrodieFrøken Jean Brodies beste alder, etc. The critic Jenny Turner, who was born in Aberdeen, told me that it is easy to be at once very Scottish, as Spark called herself, and utterly continental, pointing to the relationship between Scotland and France in philosophy, during the Enlightenment, and in diplomacy, with the Auld Alliance. (Miss Brodie tells her set, “We of Edinburgh owe a lot to the French.”) Spark found much inspiration across the Channel in the work of “the new French writers” led by Alain Robbe-Grillet, who, as she wrote in The Mandelbaum Gate (1965), depict “repetition, boredom, despair, going nowhere for nothing” in “a tight, unbreakable statement of the times at hand”.

In the decade following The Mandelbaum Gate, which itself marked a kind of border, Spark wrote a series of novels in the new French mode, including The Driver’s Seat (1970), though Turner believes any borrowings underlined “a convergence with what she had been doing anyway”. Spark herself was eager to remind people that when she started writing fiction “there was no Robbe-Grillet”. It seems a case less of parasitic influence than of a shared impatience with what Spark called “slop and sentimentalism”, “wadding and claptrap”, as well as a shared allegiance to the work of writers such as Proust, Gide and Charles Baudelaire, who, Turner told me, was the inventor of the outsize dancer-figure, “the fanfarlo”, which Spark borrowed for a long narrative poem and her first story, “The Seraph and the Zambesi”, which beat 7,000 other entries to win an Observer competition in 1951.

id Spark have any kindred spirits among British writers of her time? The usual comparisons (Ivy Compton-Burnett, Iris Murdoch, Evelyn Waugh) tend to acknowledge her chosen milieux, or use of gargoyles, or her use of arch and brittle dialogue. How about Pinter? “What a little beauty of a play!” Spark wrote in 1961, reviewing a TV version of The Dumb Waiter. “He can do pathos, humour and tragedy, all in one piece.” Later that year, both writers were storming America. In the October 14 edition of the New Yorker, you could read the whole of Jean Brodie, then turn the page and find Edith Oliver heralding Pinter’s arrival as a Broadway playwright (“The Caretaker, at the Lyceum, simply cannot be as good as I think it is”).

Between them, Spark and Pinter liberated post-war English writing from its Angry Young impasse with a formally severe, continental-flavoured regime, dogged in its clarity and jet-black in its comedy, of scheming bachelors, haughty geriatrics, eloquent phantoms, frenzied showdowns – and a fascination with what Spark, in her paragraph on Pinter, called “the relevance of irrelevant talk and action”. (Kermode said that Spark was concerned to show that characters in novels “must say things that transcend simple relevance, and so may appear irrelevant”.)

At a certain point, the analogy breaks down. Watching Ian Rickson’s sharp new production of The Birthday Party, at the Harold Pinter Theatre (until 14 April), you realise that, without a narrator-figure to mediate, the play cannot really distinguish its perspective from the thing observed – a contorted world (here designed with chilly flair by the Brothers Quay) is what you get. In The Comforters – another tale of enigmatic visitors to a south coast cottage, published the year Pinter’s play was written – Spark was able to be both clarifying and cryptic, rational without denying the irrational.

The advantage to Pinter was dramatic intensity; a single aim, pursued with unwavering focus. Spark spent half a century resolving contradictions, squaring circle after circle. It’s an achievement that seems less like a product of a biographical recipe (the nurturing city, the inspiring conversion, the years of Grub Street toil, and so on) than some phenomenon of nature or the supernatural, or possibly both – like the sunset in Jean Brodie that, in its mixture of gold and blood, seems to suggest that “the end of the world had come without intruding on everyday life”. 

“Muriel Spark at 100”, an event featuring Alan Taylor, James Campbell and Ali Smith, takes place on 15 April at the Cambridge Literary Festival

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire

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.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire