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“I was killed when I was 27”: the curious afterlife of Terence Trent D’Arby

Terence Trent D’Arby’s 1987 debut album sold a million copies in three days. The music press went mad for him. Where was there to go but down?

Imagine this. You’re 25 years old and your debut album of perfectly polished soul-rock-pop-funk sells one million copies in the first three days of release. It delivers three Top Ten hits, winning you numerous platinum gongs and a Grammy Award, and parachutes you right into the arena of the 1980s megastars you idolise. You drive the music press into a frenzy: they say you combine the voice of Sam Cooke and the moves of James Brown with the louche beauty of Jimi Hendrix. You are mentored by Springsteen, Leonard Cohen and Pete Townshend; you spend hours on the phone with Prince and sing on Brian Wilson albums. You even meet your hero Muhammad Ali, whose attitude you’ve ingested, saying: “Tell people long enough and loud enough you’re the greatest and eventually they’ll believe you.” In case anyone is in any doubt about just how important you are, you draw a parallel between your destiny and that of Martin Luther King.

Early one morning, at the end of one of your six-hour, joss-stick-infused overnight interviews, a journalist asks you what happens if your follow-up album isn’t as successful as your first. For once, you are lost for words. “That’s like asking me what I would do if my dick fell off . . .”

The man who slips into the hotel lobby in Milan looks like a fashion district local – one scarf over his dreadlocks, another curled round his neck – but there’s an inward energy about him, like one of those fragile celebrities who doesn’t want to be noticed but cannot help it: it’s all there in the cut of the trousers and size of the blue-bottle shades.

I’ve been given instructions for my meeting with Sananda Maitreya. 1. Please don’t mention the name “Terence Trent D’Arby”, as it is painful for him. 2. Please don’t make any comparisons with Prince regarding his name change, which occurred in 1995 after a series of dreams. 3. Please don’t ask him things like, “What songs do you think would make a good single from your new album, Rise of the Zugebrian Time Lords?”

The hotel is next to Milan’s cathedral, the Duomo, where Maitreya (formerly Darby) proposed to his Italian wife, the architect and former television presenter Francesca Francone, some years ago ­during a Catholic Mass. We go to the sixth floor and find that nothing is quite right up there: the room is too hot; he orders a whiskey and Coke and can’t find a bottle opener; we find one and it doesn’t work. Finally, he takes a long, reassuring slug and declares, “I feel like I’m going on a date when I’ve been married 25 years. I don’t know how to do this any more.”

He says softly: “One thing about Italians is you can’t let them in your head. They’re inquisitive. The English and Germans are a dog tribe; the Italians are cats. They’re very helpful, but it’s in their own rhythm, their own way, and it can drive you crazy.”

It’s an odd start to an interview, but even as a young man Terence Trent D’Arby liked to discourse on a broad range of subjects. An American who rejected his homeland, D’Arby was living in Britain through what he refers to today as “the Thatcher Revolution”; he was a strange, exotic bird, dropped down in the streets of London, cruising around on a motorbike in the video for his hit song “Sign Your Name” and appearing frequently on the Channel 4 show The Tube (he had a year-long affair with its host, Paula Yates). Today, his accent is New York, but back then it was English; the apostrophe he adopted was a mark of his rapid self-elevation. He was all things to all people, and once began a Q Magazine interview deconstructing the defeat of Neil Kinnock in the 1987 election.

“Oh my God, I can’t believe you thought I was a socialist,” he says now. “I was nothing more than an opportunist. Any socialist tendencies I may have had were cured when I got my first tax bill. All artists are socialists until they see another artist with a bigger house than theirs.”

D’Arby had cut his teeth in a German funk band while stationed in Frankfurt with Elvis Presley’s old regiment; and like that other army boy, Hendrix, he came to fame in a London that wanted his music more than the country he came from. The producer Martyn Ware – a founder member of Heaven 17 and the Human League – worked with him on his debut LP, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby, which also included the hit songs “Wishing Well” and “If You Let Me Stay”. He describes D’Arby as “a box of fireworks going off in every direction. I have never met anyone so driven.” Ware would arrive at the studio in the morning and find D’Arby already sitting there in the dark, analysing live recordings of Sam Cooke: “It was like he was studying at university to be a classic soul singer.”

Out in the world, his preternatural confidence was magnetic. “He was the world’s most beautiful man,” Ware says. “I used to walk around Soho with him and women would literally stop and stare – he looked like a god because he’s got that boxer’s body, and he was a bit androgynous, too. Even the men fancied him.” (D’Arby once said he had sex more often than he washed his hair.)

To the music press, he posed a dilemma. As a pop star he was so perfect, Charles Shaar Murray wrote in 1988, he was “like something invented by three rock critics on the ’phone”. They called him two things: a genius, and a wanker. To make things more confusing, the very same people calling him a genius were the people calling him a wanker. Worse still, D’Arby worshipped these people. While living in Germany he had devoured the NME and Melody Maker. “I had an intellectual crush on Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray and Julie,” he says today – “Julie Burchill. But she is so reactionary now.” He knew that British rock hacks thought American artists were boring to interview so he set out to be different.

***

Terence Trent D’Arby’s follow-up album, 1989’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh, was not the triumph he had predicted. It was an experimental psych-soul project featuring tribal drums, surf rock guitar and cosmic libretto: “To an outside world I will not be defined!” Early in its inception, D’Arby’s old team received a Dear John letter saying that he felt like this was his moment: he wanted to produce, master and engineer the project himself. He is credited as playing, among other things, kazoo, saxophone, sitar and timpani on the record. He invited Martyn Ware to hear the album when it was finished (in another darkened studio session, which D’Arby himself did not attend). “And although I thought it was very brave,” Ware tells me, “I just couldn’t hear the singles.” The album stiffed – spectacularly, for its time – selling just 300,000 copies (the debut sold over nine million). It brought about a downfall straight out of a Greek tragedy. In music lore, its creator disappeared from the face of the earth on 23 October 1989, the moment the record was released. The truth is slightly different: he soldiered on valiantly for a few years, did a naked cover shoot for Q in 1993 and his third album, Symphony Or Damn, produced four top 20 singles in the UK, among them “Delicate” and “Let Her Down Easy”. But all this is irrelevant, because no one believes that Terence Trent D’Arby died in 1989 more than Terence Trent D’Arby himself.

“It felt like I was going to join the 27 Club,” he says quietly, referring to the rock’n’roll heaven inhabited by Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and all the others who died at that unfortunate age. “And psychologically I did, because that is exactly the age I was when I was killed.”

His speech has an automatic quality and there is very little eye contact. You don’t interact with him, you lob questions over the top of what he’s saying and hope that he might catch them.

“The bottom line is, we’re all pretty much sleepwalking,” he says. “The most difficult thing artists have to deal with is the crushing difference between what they know they can do with their dream being supported, and the reality they have to navigate with the business.”

Over the years he has blamed his former record company, Sony, for the failure of his career, saying it refused to promote Neither Fish Nor Flesh. He drew parallels with George Michael, who fought a long battle with Sony in the same era, claiming it wished to keep him in a situation of “creative slavery” when he wanted to branch out with his sound. But George Michael is still with us. I’m curious to know whether, with hindsight and a change of identity, Sananda Maitreya finds that his feelings about the causes of his career failure have changed. “The good news is, most record company people are motivated by the same reason most of us are: greed,” he says. “So, no, when you look back at it, it didn’t make much sense for management not to want my second record to succeed.”

The alternative reasons he gives are a surprise. “I came around at a time when myself, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna and George Michael, we were considered kind of dangerous,” he says. “To the system, to the establishment, you become a rival politician.”

The establishment’s urge to end his career was so great, he says, that there were debates about him in the House of Lords. His real nemesis was not the Thatcher administration, but “the 800lb gorilla in the room, Michael, Master Jackson”, who saw him as a threat and, having bought up the Beatles catalogue in 1985, held “more power than the Pope” within the industry.

Every few minutes in our long conversation, Maitreya cuts away from dark realms of government plots and talks more candidly about the business. “It’s only a matter of time before a cheaper model of you comes along,” he explains. “Record companies say, ‘Hey, if you like this asshole, you’re going to like this asshole – plus we’re making a higher margin on this asshole.’ They don’t tell you that while you’re getting smarter, commanding more for yourself, you’re putting an egg-timer on your career.”

As a young man he once observed, “This industry doesn’t like too many black faces around at one time. If someone puts me on the cover of a magazine, they ain’t going to be putting another black face on the cover for a while because it wouldn’t make commercial sense and that’s the way of the world.” Already selling millions to a white yuppie audience, D’Arby could afford to be philosophical about genre pigeonholing but the digs at his rivals abounded. He claimed that black artists before him – Lionel Richie, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson – had emasculated themselves to get into the charts. He would be Jerry Lee Lewis, he once declared, rather wonderfully: “the embodiment of the white man gone bad”.

Today he does not name the new, cheaper-to-run assholes who came up when the industry had “successfully killed my primary image”, so I draw his attention to a poem on his website, from 2002.

For Lenny K

Fear not, Your girls are safe!

I’ve got an italian girlfriend now

And my leash is pretty short

Ps Also let me say to you now
how

proud I am of you.

You took care of the tribes necessary

business and moved it forward

And kept the light on.

I know it wasn’t easy. Bless you!

I ask him whether this poem was dedicated to Lenny Kravitz, who achieved success the year Terence died and was also, like him, a sexy black rock star who’d grown up listening to the Stones.

He says he can’t remember writing the poem, but then concedes: “At one point I thought they would give Lenny my social security number as well. I think my greatest envy of him was that he actually did have a tremendous amount of support from his record company while I was always fucking arguing with mine.

“Much of what I wanted to do was moved over to him while I was going through my mortification period.”

In August, at a festival in Sweden, Kravitz’s leather trousers split on stage and the unfortunate incident went viral. He was
revealed to be wearing no underpants, and a cock ring. I ask Maitreya whether he saw the internet clip.

“No,” he says, and for the first time a spark dances in his eye. “Choreographed for sure. The only thing I could think to do with a cock ring now is keep my house keys on it.”

In hindsight, it’s impossible to imagine a Game of Thrones playing out in the late 1980s and early 1990s between a handful of black male rock stars – D’Arby, Kravitz, Seal, Michael Jackson and Prince. Yet Jackson, paranoid about everyone, indeed felt threatened by D’Arby; he was upset when his lawyer, John Branca, took D’Arby on as a client, and urged him to drop him.

“The hero factory is there to produce pop idols,” Maitreya says. “We’re fools, we wear the fools’ hats. Our job is to be publicly flogged and beaten when it’s time to do that. The price of fame is: when we need to crucify you, you need to be available to us. We’ll give you a good burial, make some nice T-shirts. Each of them pays their own price. You don’t just come through unscathed.”

Did he hold on to his publishing rights? Does he still get royalties?

“Yeah. I wasn’t a total idiot.”

***

In January 2009 Lady Gaga told the world, “. . . I’ve always been famous, you just didn’t know it.” The press enjoyed her nuclear sense of self-belief and the postmodern, almost academic way she talked about her music, borrowing a limb from all her heroes and setting herself alongside them. Five years later, Gaga was declared dead by various publications – but not before she had rendered Madonna irrelevant. In 1988, Terence Trent D’Arby declared he’d be as big as Madge, too. “The worst thing she could possibly do is not to have died young like Marilyn,” he says. “How considerate of Marilyn to have died, so we didn’t have to deal with the reality of the fact that even our goddesses get older.”

In the afterglow of his first album’s success, he declared he would finally break America – and shortly afterwards he turned up on the cover of Rolling Stone. But every long profile of him began with enthusiastic speculation about his inevitable fall. “He created this monster,” Ware says. “It started off as a giggle, an ironic thing. He understood the business of star-building, and he became his own experiment. Then he fell out with journalists who were extremely eager to pull him down.”

Before he joined the army, D’Arby studied journalism for a year at the University of Florida. He records our interview and emails me afterwards. I’m half expecting him to retract some of the things he has said, but he’s just improving a few of his quotes. The old self-belief is still there but these days it is shot through with pain. Where does it come from? Can he explain, now Terence is dead and buried?

He has never told anyone this, he says, but on the night of 8 December 1980 he dreamed that he met John Lennon on the street in New York and extended his hand, and felt Lennon “basically walk into” him. When he awoke he heard that Lennon had been killed. “From the age of 18 onwards, I had a different confidence about what was meant to happen to my life. I can only say this with all relative humility: I saw myself as a Beatle.”

***

A few years ago, Sananda Mait­reya’s wife told him his attitude was that of a typical New Yorker. “I thought about it, and I said, ‘Actually, that’s right, you know,’ because New Yorkers have a chip on their shoulder, too.”

He was born in Manhattan in 1962 to a gospel singer and counsellor, Frances Howard, and raised by her and the man he now refers to as his stepfather, Bishop James Benjamin Darby. Pop music was banned from the household: hearing Michael Jackson’s voice floating from a neighbour’s yard was “like my first kiss”. The family moved from New York to DeLand in northern Florida, where his stepfather became pastor of the city’s Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ and chairman of the Pentecostal international board of evangelists. Terry Darby, as he was known, was a successful pupil – he became managing editor of the school paper and sang in a student chorus called the Sound of the Seventies – but he got into fights. He had problems with black kids and with white kids (“Fuck the both of you – I’m green,” is how he once put it) and suffered his first fall from grace when, during one scuffle, he stabbed someone with his afro hair pick. Boxing was an outlet for his anger – he won the prestigious Golden Gloves prize in Orlando at 17 and caught the attention of army coaches. His parents persuaded him to go to university instead but he was frustrated there, particularly by his lack of success with women. He dropped out and joined the army but soon got fed up of taking instructions from people he considered less intelligent. After amassing a number of reprimands he was discharged at 21.

Maitreya tells me today that he was an illegitimate child, raised with five legitimate children. “The circumstances of my birth were very embarrassing to my mother,” he says. “My biological father was a married man, so basically, in any event, it was already a messy situation.”

I ask him if this biological father was white (he has often drawn attention to his light skin). “. . . or an alien, or both. Point is, I came into the world in a very compromising situation, and because of my mother’s religious upbringing abortion was out of the question.”

He tells me that his mother “made it very, very clear that Jesus was the most important thing in her life, and she did what she could not to project the fact that I was an embarrassment to her. I spent most of my life unconsciously competing with Jesus for my mother’s attention. Which is kind of tough, because first of all, I couldn’t see him, except for pictures, and second of all he wasn’t really there, and it’s tough to compete with somebody who’s invisible.”

Does he still talk to her? She can be seen on YouTube, singing gospel under the name Mother Frances Darby.

“I’m not sure she’s even the same woman,” he says, vaguely. And then, as he has been given to doing throughout his career, he pulls his experience – and probably that of many other pop stars – into focus for a moment. “If you have a chip on your shoulder, use it,” he says. “In Latin, fame means hunger, and I’m hungry. Not a hundred people in my generation could have done what I did, and the difference between us is that they got from their environment what they needed. There was no need for them to mount some huge, fucking life-destroying campaign to show the world, ‘Look, I am worthy of my mother’s attention.’”

Did he have a nervous breakdown?

“Of course I had a breakdown,” he says. “It was clearly a breakdown, and all you can do is surrender and try to not put too many pills into your body. You could say, clearly this guy had some sort of bipolar crisis.”

And where was he when this breakdown happened?

“I was living in great fabulous fucking mansions in Sunset Boulevard on my own,” he says, sounding suddenly weary, and tapping my tape recorder. “Are you sure this thing is on?”

Maitreya says he has inherited “a degree of family madness, some male schizophrenia issues”, from his Scots-Irish bloodline. He talks about the connection between madness and creativity, comparing the management of demons to the delicate power balance involved in a man having successful dominance over a wolf. Yet the cast of characters in attendance during his breakdown – which occurred after he moved Los Angeles in the mid-1990s, feeling alienated by the British press – appears to have been more mundane.

“I can remember getting up in the middle of the night and sleepwalking to the bathroom, taking a piss, and having a quiet inner voice saying, ‘Don’t worry. Some day, you’re going to change both the music and the business,’” he says. “I do believe that Master Lennon, being an angel of the Lord, is available to a lot of people in inspiring ­circumstances. I believe the same about Elvis, the same with Master Michael, even though he was a huge nemesis in that lifetime. Since his death, he definitely knows he owes me some karma.”

It was angels who named him Sananda, he says, in dreams during his depression. “Then, later, I realised I think I need a second name, because I didn’t want to piss ­Madonna off, you know!”

***

The singular ambition that burned Neither Fish Nor Flesh to cinders has only intensified over time. Sananda Maitreya puts out a new album every two years on his independent label, Treehouse. They usually feature two dozen compositions; his puntastic titles include Nigor Mortis and “Neutered and Spade”. Each project is the fruit of finally having the space to “completely regurgitate all the stuff that went into my becoming an artist in the first place”. For several years there has been talk of a film about his life, he says, but he is struggling to get involved because he can see three or four different ways of telling the story.

The new project, Rise of the Zugebrian Time Lords, is a retro-futuristic concept album spread over two discs of “bipolar” excess. Maitreya’s decision to start with a Beatles song, “You’re Going To Lose That Girl”, should come as no surprise. The energy of the project is almost exhausting. Instruments – he plays them all – form a noisy zoo of woodwind, blues guitar and a loose, jangly piano spooked by the spirit of Carole King. What is this record? A Broadway musical for one? A fantastic exercise in rock’n’roll hubris? An aural exploration of mental health issues?

Surprisingly, he doesn’t want to talk about it. I press him about the lyrics to “Giraffe”, a likeable, child-friendly melody that contains the lines: “Giraffe/can I have your autograph?/Please sign it to Sananda”. When I suggest that it sounds like a song from Sesame Street he brightens. For the past five years he has been listening almost exclusively to children’s music with his two sons, aged three and five. Joe Raposo, who wrote many of the programme’s best-loved songs, including “It’s Not Easy Being Green”, is one of his favourite composers. His husky voice swells into a perfect,
sparkly croon: Can you tell me how to get – how to get to Sesame Street! “You know,” he says, “I think Elvis Costello was also influenced by some of Raposo’s stuff. You’re not supposed to say that, as an angry young writer, ‘Oh yeah, I listen to Sesame Street,’ but I can hear certain devices of his that sound like that whole Electric Company style of songwriting.”

His boys love “Giraffe”, but he can’t be around while they are listening to it; his wife later tells me she has to wait until he’s out of  the house to play it to them. He talks touchingly about love being “something you have to work on – it doesn’t just come to you”. As a young man, he scythed his way through women, partly because of his mother issues, he thinks: then one day he decided to stop, “because you’re only going to wind up looking for the same thing anyway”.

He can’t listen to anyone else’s pop music these days. His only comfortable relationship is with “Master Beethoven”, who presumably is dead enough not to offer any painful competition. But clearly the man who makes a double album and then can’t play it again is living daily with bigger enemies than “Lenny Cockring Kravitz” (as he calls him in his follow-up email) or the ghost of Master Jackson. Across the record there are hints of the cinnamon-voiced psychedelic wonders that could emerge from the pen of Sananda Maitreya, were he to allow a producer or A&R team to get their hands on his work. “His voice is even better than it was at the time,” says Martyn Ware, who still receives each new project in the post from his old charge. “But he has no sub-editor.”

“Tell me about your new album” is usually the most boring prompt in the rock’n’roll interview. The second – “How has being a father changed you?” (Maitreya also has a grown daughter from a previous relationship) – yields similarly surprising results. “Anything else at this point in life is a bonus, because I’ve already done the most important thing, simply to have passed my genes on to some other bitches,” Maitreya says, showing me a picture of two small boys who look just like him, only with blond, curly hair and blue eyes.

“I’m very confident that my first son is my biological father and it gives me the chance to have finally a relationship with him. My first son is also a continuation of the life that I left behind.”

His first son might be Terence Trent D’Arby? Does that not worry him?

“Preferably they’ll both want to follow their mother and be architects,” he says.

As the afternoon draws to a close he talks again of bloodlines. Originally all the world was black, he tells me: “Bitches looked like me! Didn’t look like you!” His own white, “land-owning, slave-owning blood” is another reason Providence gave him his assignment, he says.

And once we’re back on to that, something clicks down in him again. We’re on to Jonah and the Whale, “being spat out unceremoniously after three days”, and thence, without pause, to vampires. For a moment, he becomes agitated when he realises that the brown cotton scarf that was covering his dreads has disappeared. It’s true enough: one minute I was looking at it and the next it wasn’t there. So much magic has been talked in this room today that I think, for a moment, that Sananda Maitreya’s headscarf might have vanished into thin air and I’ll have to tell someone about it afterwards. We search and find it down the back of his seat.

“What was I saying?”

I want to tell him not to re-join his mystical thread. He was so much happier talking about Elvis Costello. But we’re back to the industry, and death. The irony is, the industry he was raised in is dead and buried, too.

“And in killing the messengers they killed a whole generation,” Maitreya says. “Like Maestro Thom Yorke: they alienated him, and he was providing the answers they needed.”

Surely the point is that you’re free now?

“Yeah, well, free is relative,” he says. “The moment we’re met with too much freedom, we shit our pants.”

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis

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 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis