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Food & Feast (Virtual Version): The Servant (1963)

Poster Art for The Servant

Tony: Can you cook?

Barrett: Well, it’s… if I might put it this way, sir, cooking is something in which I take a great deal of pride.

Tony: Any dish in particular?

Barrett: Well, my… my soufflés have always received a great deal of praise in the past, sir.

Tony: Do you know anything about Indian dishes?

Barrett: A little, sir.

Tony: Well, I know a hell of a lot.
[Tony sits in the other chair.]
Tony: You’d have to do all the cooking here.

Barrett: That would give me great pleasure, sir.

The above exchange from Joseph Losey’s adaptation of Robin Maughan’s novel The Servant (1963) happens during the first scene, a job interview in which young, posh Tony (James Fox) gets a sense of manservant Barrett’s (Dirk Bogarde) skills to decide if he will hire him. Up to that point, Barrett’s responses have been measured and confidently, fluently delivered. But when cooking is brought up, Barrett begins to pause and repeat himself. Is it his enthusiasm showing through that makes him doubt before speaking? Or are the pauses a liar’s tell, which Tony inevitably misses thanks to his position of aloof superiority? Clearly, such a statement would be easy to confirm – Tony would test its veracity as soon as he has a meal Barrett prepared. Later in the film, Tony is more than pleased with Barrett’s cooking, as he exclaims on several occasions how much he enjoys the latter’s dishes. Yet, as power plays begin between the master and his servant, the viewer has cause to question the quality of Barrett’s culinary talents, even when Tony himself has apparently vouched for them. What matters in the bit above, as well as in the rest of film, is not so much how good Barrett’s cooking is but that it is Barrett who’s doing “all the cooking here.” What the viewer sees is how much agency anyone surrenders to the person who fixes their meals, and how that surrender turns the ability to cook into a frighteningly effective means of dominance.

Barrett's ducky gloves: Wendy Craig (left), Dirk Bogarde and James Fox

Scripted by Harold Pinter, the dialogue in The Servant comes charged with the amusingly unsettling awkwardness and class tensions of his early plays, like The Birthday Party and The Caretaker – it was his very first feature screenplay not based on his own stage work, and his first collaboration with American exile Losey, in a creative partnership that would also produce the equally oblique and perversely subtle Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971). Losey, also a talented theatre director, understood the rhythm and rarified status of Pinter’s words – often devoid of face value, Pinter’s character’s statements are more an expression of supremacy, either through their utterance at any given time or through silence. Thus there is a third possibility to Barrett’s description of his own cooking: beyond the truth and the lie, could Barrett be simply asserting a willingness to take control of Tony’s life? Perhaps Barrett is neither a good nor a bad cook, but is simply telling Tony what he wants to hear, and his hesitation when answering questions about his cooking serves as the selling point – Barrett is so eager that Tony cares little whether he can cook or not, but that Barrett will be happy to do it for him.

Besides the impossibility for us to know whether Barrett is lying at any juncture, the mystery of his cooking holds further inquiries into the links between the moving image and food. Central to Pinter’s drama, both on the stage and in film, is the fundamental problem of verification of the validity of people’s words and pasts, and what could be less verifiable, for the viewer, than the taste of food in a motion picture? The Servant slyly reminds us, again and again, of food’s affinity with cinema’s most evocative and manipulative qualities – it is the kind of information films that revolve around eating demand viewers to imagine. Taste, a chemical stimulus, cannot be filmed, unlike sights and sounds (physical stimuli), and as directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, designers and their technicians find the right combination of light and vibrations to convey the molecular exchange between nutrients and taste buds, the result is a kind of inter-sensual montage, with taste always the product of the collision and never one of its agents. At times in the film the viewer might be just as inclined as Tony to believe Barrett is a master chef that makes killer soufflés: Tony gushes about them, and Barrett conducts himself around the house and kitchen with such extraordinary flair that the illusion is complete. The efficiency and professionalism of Bogarde’s performance of service, coupled with Fox’s reactions to it, are enough. We don’t even need shots of the food itself, which, in fact, Losey keeps coolly off-screen or as a peripheral, anonymous detail in the frame  (and the film, shot by Douglas Slocombe in gorgeous black-and-white, denies us even the comforts and delights of color to stimulate, through our imagination, our nose and tongue). Where films such as Like Water for Chocolate (1992) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) work hard at making the food feel and look stunningly succulent, Losey and Pinter almost lead us to take it for granted – which is exactly Tony’s mistake, as the film unfolds and his dependence on Barrett  for the most vital of tasks becomes irrevocably apparent.

But the flavor of the food itself is, like the veracity of words, secondary. Pinter and Losey intersperse countless details throughout the film to undermine our certainty in the deliciousness of Barrett’s cooking. Tony’s girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig) immediately distrusts Barrett, and while she doesn’t openly express displeasure for his food, she never really endorses it either, and she rejects his choices everywhere else – in the house’s décor, in his attire, and in how he takes care of Tony. Near the end, Tony once again pronounces his admiration for Barrett’s food, while Barrett is more skeptical of his own accomplishment. “A bit salty,” he remarks without the slightest quickening of the pride (which might be hurt due to over-salting) of which he spoke so emphatically in their first encounter. It is possible that Barrett never really took his own cooking that seriously, and that the forever privileged, pampered Tony knows nothing about food, Indian or otherwise, his palate rendered incapable of serious discernment. In our inability to know whether the food is indeed as tasty as Tony finds it to be, Pinter and Losey treat food as a Pinteresque statement or pause – as staking a claim over someone else’s territory. It is the cook who has control just by virtue of cooking or withholding the food.

I doubt anyone would dispute that there’s very real power in the ability to cook, and such conclusion is hardly The Servant’s most keenly observed pressure point in human relations based on servility (although the connection is deeper – a pivotal seduction in the film happens, tellingly, in the kitchen), but in its references to food, and its directing our focus to whom is doing the cooking at any given time, The Servant holds its most stealthily creeping menace. When the assault on Tony’s “innocence” (Stephen Gale’s term for Tony’s ignorance of the workings of the world beyond the structures that favor his social stratus) takes more direct, overtly sinister form, the pervasive, if subdued, presence of food and drink gives way to appetites of a different kind. But through his statements about his cooking, and his cooking itself, Barrett surreptitiously sets the makings of Tony’s undoing… and a disturbingly mysterious shared fate for the two men. To say that the servant is really in control of his master because it is the servant who handles every aspect of the latter’s daily life, including the indispensable and intimate business of food, only tells half the story in The Servant – Losey and Pinter are after more than a simple reversal of the status quo. For why is it that Barrett lets go of the talent, real or professed, that made him so proud to start making food that’s a bit salty?

The Servant would’ve been my entry in the current Cinematheque series because it is a stinging reminder that trusting someone with our food means trusting them with our lives. It need not be a case of poisoning – even a decent, perfectly safe meal can be a promise of danger. The film confronts us with the thought that we are at our most vulnerable at dinner time – and that if we are indeed possessors of this power, it might be too easy, and ill-advised, to abuse it.

(PS: It is wonderful to see The Servant, which we could call a minor classic or even a near-classic that is not much talked-about or referenced these days, appear in the most unexpected places. According to Ridley Scott’s commentary in the Blu-Ray edition of Prometheus (2012) he instructed Michael Fassbender to watch The Servant and Dirk Bogarde’s performance in particular to develop the role of David, the ship’s resident android and the mission’s multi-purpose assistant. Scott decided to do so rather than direct Fassbender “until he’s blue in the face” about how he wanted him to play the part. Fassbender’s work is certainly among the film’s highlights).