The comparisons with Boiling Point are inevitable, so let's get them out of the way.
Boiling Point is a one-shot, real-time, one-location wonder starring Stephen Graham as a highly strung chef at a trendy London restaurant trying to get through a particularly tough dinner service; flinty Vinette Robinson is his no-nonsense sous chef. It's an utterly riveting work of cinematic theater. (The film is new to streaming, and one of the best films of 2021.)
A Taste of Hunger bears some superficial resemblance to Boiling Point. It's set in a trendy Copenhagen restaurant, where highly strung Carsten (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) rules his kitchen with an iron fist, backed up by his no-nonsense business partner — and life partner — Maggie (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal). But where Boiling Point is explosive and breathlessly fast-paced, Hunger is a contemplative slow burn. Set over several years, jumping back and forth in time, it engages in deliberate provocation as it explores just how much one is willing to risk, how much one is prepared to pay, in order to achieve one's dream.
Hunger features more food porn than Boiling Point — lovely lingering shots of artistically arranged Scandi comestibles! — but also, because it's mostly in Danish, subtitles. I know those are not to everyone's taste.
Anyway. Carsten and Maggie share a dream: a Michelin star for their restaurant. Everything they are, from the financial to the emotional, is invested in this. The eldest of their two children, Chloe (Flora Augusta), is starting to be aware that her parents are consumed by their work. Daddy talks too much about food, she complains. But in the way of moody, brooding European films, Daddy talks about food in a way that may be philosophically applied to everything Mommy and Daddy are doing: It's good to combine "sweet and sour," Carsten tries to explain to Chloe, "like lemon ice cream."
Chloe's not buying it... and, indeed, there's a tenderly observed running motif about how kids are impacted by the chaos and discord of their parents, and in particular how daughters, even very young ones, can feel their parents' pain deeply.
That's built into the metaphors of complex, considered cuisine layered throughout. Life is a feast of conflicting feelings and desires — sweet and sour go great together, then add some crunch and some heat — just like you'd find dining at their restaurant Malus. It's hardly subtle, the name of Maggie and Carsten's place, Latin for harmful, but also a financial term indicating an investment that results in a loss. Is there any way for this power couple to snag that Michelin star — and the rocketing to even greater success than they're already enjoying such a triumph would entail — that won't result in some sort of loss?
Everything is at stake here: marriage and family as well as the business. Both Carsten and Maggie are complicated, difficult people whom Danish writer-director Christoffer Boe refuses to pin down. The film swings with a gentle ferocity between sympathizing with one partner, then the other — just when we've settled on one of them as the definitive villain, the one responsible for the rockiness of their situation, the movie snatches that certainty back from us. (Boe's co-writer is Tobias Lindholm; his last credit is for Oscar-winner Another Round, which is similarly compassionate and generous with its empathy for the messiness of modern adult life.)
This is no delicate, precious film. There is nothing on screen that is the storytelling equivalent of Carsten throwing an absolute tantrum over the overfermented lemons that ruined — ruined, I tell you! — the oyster starter. (Coster-Waldau continues to be finely modulated as an actor, and a thrilling pleasure to watch.) No, this is a movie that is unembarrassed to admit that sometimes, what you really need, what will really hit the spot, is a simple hot dog. A Taste of Hunger gives us much more than that, but its groundedness goes a long way. ♦