Chairman Mao’s works were studied and celebrated. CREDIT: PHOTO12/UIG VIA GETTY
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Why dictators find the lure of writing books irresistible

Daniel Kalder investigates why dictators have aspired to be, as Stalin put it, “engineers of souls”, and – in pursuit of that object – have written some very long and very tedious books.

Daniel Kalder was living in Moscow in the early years of this century when, switching on his television, he saw a Brobdingnagian book. It was candy-pink and green, and as high as several houses. On its front cover was embossed the golden bust, in profile, of a dictator.

By the time Kalder travelled to Turkmenistan in 2006 the self-styled Turkmenbashi (Father of all Turkmen) was dead. The mechanism of the gigantic book, which opened to display, each night, a different double-page spread of his thoughts, had failed, but the book still loomed, floodlit, over the capital, “ominous and immense and exceedingly kitsch”. A symbol of the vanity of human hubris to rival Ozymandias’s trunkless legs, it set Kalder off on an investigation of the curious fact that dictators from Lenin to Kim Jong-il, not content with absolute power over their people’s lives, have aspired to be, as Stalin put it, “engineers of souls” as well, and – in pursuit of that object – have written some very long and very tedious books.

Kalder’s own book, on the other hand, is brisk, and full of antic fun. Here are some of the words and phrases he uses to describe the works under consideration: “turgid”, “boring”, “entirely vapid”, “aggressively stupid”, “obscure”, “repetitive and violent”, “staggeringly incompetent”, “rote pap”, “sub-fascist waffle”, “virulently awful”, “the worst books ever written”. Here are some of the words I scribbled in the margin to describe his approach to them: “flippant”, “facetious”, “sarcastic”, “sneery”, “ironic”, “sprightly”.

The despots and mass-murderers he’s writing about were, he argues “enemies of laughter”. And so he combats them by laughing at them, as his predecessors in the field, from Charlie Chaplin onwards, have done. Dictator Literature is the outcome of lots of hard-slog research. Kalder’s glancing references – to Borges, Tertullian, Aldous Huxley – hint at sophisticated reading. But the idiom in which he has chosen to present his findings is broadly comic. In the face of so much pomposity, so much wrong-headedness, so many broken communities and ruined cultures, so many people dead, what can you do – he seems to be asking – but crack some jokes?

We like to think that reading and writing make us better people. When Václav Havel came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1989 I recall listening to much talk about how this was a good thing, not only because of Havel’s record of courageous opposition to political oppression, but because he was a writer, and therefore – surely – wise. Since then I’ve written about Gabriele d’Annunzio, the author of much beautiful poetry and some fine novels, who was a bloodthirsty nationalist warmonger, and I’m no longer so sure that literacy makes the world a better place. Kalder is clear about it. Books are dangerous. The question whether a person of 1889, who could foresee the future, should or should not have murdered the infant Hitler in his pram, is, he writes, a bit of a conundrum. But surely there is no doubt that it would be better if young Iosif Dzhugashvili (aka Stalin) had somehow been prevented from learning to read?

Dictators make books: books make dictators. In the beginning – the beginning of the sequence of revolutions and dictatorships that made up the “terrible twentieth century” – was the word. Even before he had read Marx, the young Lenin read Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What Is to Be Done? (Kalder’s snap review – “wooden characters and tedious didacticism”.) Deeply impressed, Lenin gave the same title to one of his own books, of which there were many. His collected works runs to 55 volumes.

Lenin changed the world, but before he did so he had spent decades sitting in an armchair reading. Even once he was ruling a vast empire he still found plenty of time to write. He advocated direct action. He urged his followers to arm themselves, to beat up and murder their opponents, “to blow up their headquarters etc”. That “etc” gives away his actual lack of enthusiasm for physical brutality. That side of things, he delegated. His role was to incite others to violence by means of literature. Kalder sees him as a drug-dealer of the mind. “Strident, staccato, charged with a throbbing, pulsating, angry energy, Lenin’s prose caries the reader along… like fate, like destiny.” If you were his contemporary, shared his hatreds and believed his prophecies, “the text-Lenin reached up from the page to hand you a crack-pipe of the good shit”.

Stalin was hooked early, but before he’d encountered Lenin’s oeuvre he was already high on Ninety-Three, Victor Hugo’s novel about the French Revolutionary Terror of 1793. His other favourite book, as a young man, was a popular Georgian novel about a noble bandit, Alexander Kazbegi’s The Patricide, described by Kalder as “a violent romantic yarn of blood feuds, vigilante justice and the forceful appropriation of other people’s property”. Stalin adopted its hero’s name, Koba, and was soon robbing banks in the cause of revolution. He had been made by books, and he made it part of his life’s work to make the Soviet Union by the same means. A trained seminarian, he became the exegete of Marxist-Leninism. He collected and commented on and refocused Lenin’s writings, excising the passages where Lenin sounded like a “dyspeptic ranter” and bringing to the fore those in which the Father of the Revolution sounded suitably paternal. And, of course, Stalin wrote, or had written for him, a shelf-full of books of his own.

It would be reassuring to sentimental literati to think that someone responsible for so much slaughter as Stalin could not possibly be a competent writer, but Kalder has to praise his “orderly, structured” work. He has “modest but real strengths”. He is clear and succinct, “good at summarising complex ideas for a middlebrow audience; the Bill Bryson of dialectical materialism, minus the gags”.

Tyrants aren’t necessarily poor stylists. Kalder records a moment when, reading Mussolini’s My Diary over his supper, he stopped, and reread a passage, asking himself, “Wait, was that… good?” He had to concede that it was. And why shouldn’t it be? Mussolini was an enthusiastic autodidact, who had done what all aspiring writers should do – he immersed himself as a lonely teenager in the reading of classic texts. He loved words: he intoxicated himself and his public with them. He wrote poems and novels and plays. He was a flamboyant propagandist, and a dramaturge who created tremendous spectacles with Italy’s cities as their stage, and himself as the star. Even his seizure of power, the famous March on Rome, was a piece of theatre: il Duce actually arrived in the capital by train. Dictatorship, detestable though it may be, is an art-form.

And so to the failed painter and author of the international best-seller, Mein Kampf. Kalder likens Hitler’s book to David Copperfield (both are “far too long”). He calls it “Homeric” but only for its “crudity”. The author, he writes is “never one to make a point without beating it to death and then dragging the corpse for several exhausting miles through the mud”. In reacting, he himself seems exhausted, perhaps because here his self-imposed brief becomes perversely limiting. To consider Hitler solely as an author requires the wearing of very large and cumbersome blinkers.

Not so in the case of the last of Kalder’s Big Five. Mao Tse Tung was a reader. When he first encountered Marxism he was working in a library, “the ideal location for a cash-strapped nascent megalomaniac in need of easy access to inspirational bad ideas”. He went on to open a “Cultural Bookstore”, and meanwhile was devouring the texts that would provide “an ideological fig-leaf for his tumescent will to power”. (As Kalder’s interest revives his prose perks up.)

Each of Kalder’s subjects presents a different methodological problem. How to write about a dictator who is too notorious or too obscure, too crazily extreme in his behaviour, or too predictable? In Mao’s case the difficulty is that his life was far too long and eventful to fit easily into a brief biographical-cum-literary-critical essay. Kalder, sensibly, resorts to making lists. He gives us a timeline of Mao’s career up to the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. He narrates the next phase of the story through appraisals of Mao’s writings. The first is an essay on the peasantry from 1927. Its subtitle is “Down with the Local Tyrants and Evil Gentry!” Nuance was not Mao’s forte. Another, from 1930, is entitled “Oppose Book Worship!” But a revolutionary leader can change his mind. By 1956 reading groups for the study of Mao’s literary output were proliferating across China. Ten years later the Red Guards were waving banners reading “I love Chairman Mao’s Books Best of All”, and the best of the best was the Little Red Book.

Mao seldom left China. He deferred to Stalin, but repeatedly ignored his directives. Kalder points out that Mao’s particular brand of despotism, and his literary style, both evolved from Chinese models. The Little Red Book followed a traditional form called the yulu whose antecedents go all the way back to Confucius and his Analects. The first of the Ming emperors had produced a similar anthology of mottoes and slogans, and decreed that every family in China must own a copy.

In Mao’s China, as in the Ming era, a written word was not just the material equivalent of a unit of language. It was a talisman, and an artefact. Mao’s words, printed and published en masse, reached people who then transformed them back into artefacts. Posters of Mao’s dicta covered walls. They were inscribed on metal plates for attachment to cars and motorbikes. They were carved on to the side of mountains, or etched on grains of rice. They were ornaments. They were miracle-working amulets. They were tools for killing. One of them, which was recast as a hit song, ran “Ensure that Literature and Art Operate as Powerful Weapons for Exterminating the Enemy”. The humanist vision of literature, as a means by which minds could commune peaceably with others belonging to the long dead or the immensely distant, had been overturned. So had the notion of reading and writing as a stimulus for original and diverse thought. Kalder evokes a nightmare vision of an entire population possessed by the Chairman-ventriloquist, whose thought “seized hold of the tongue and jerked the limbs” as people spoke to each other only in the words of Mao.

Having dealt with his five great monsters, Kalder moves on to “small demons”, lesser tyrants from Mongolia to Haiti, from Libya to Cuba, from North Korea back to Russia. His chapters on Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein are illuminating, because in each case he gets inside his subject’s mind, rather than standing back and jeering. Some of the other essays feel perfunctory – one damned dictator after another. There is a falling off of narrative momentum which is not so much a failing of Kalder’s energy – his prose remains impishly vituperative to the end – as a reflection of the way the revolutionary fervour of 1917 was dissipated in a century of failed experiments. The kind of fervour now loose in our world is outside Kalder’s scheme. He is writing about humans whose books have attained the status of holy writ: the fanatics now menacing peace in the name of God’s own scriptures he leaves alone.

Turkmenbashi’s big book broke down. Most of the millions of copies of Mao’s little book are now in the dustbin of history. Kalder’s cynically humorous conclusion is at once bleak and consoling. Books, those objects that have been, for millennia, treasured and venerated, banned or burnt, are, after all, he suggests, nearly impotent. By the time of his death Hitler owned some 16,000 books. They didn’t broaden his mind much. “Bad people read good poetry and remain evil, while good people read bad novels and remain good, and we all, anyway, forget most of what we read.” 

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (4th Estate)

Dictator Literature: a History of Despots Through Their Writing
Daniel Kalder
Oneworld, 379pp, £16.99

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