October 3, 2002

Re-Heated Recipe

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Watching food meticulously prepared on-screen is a strangely synesthetic experience; one can almost see taste. Mostly Martha, however, is not primarily concerned with indulging sumptuous food cravings. Instead, first time feature-filmmaker Sandra Nettlebeck exploits the food-as-metaphor-for-life clich?. Food symbolizes everything from emotional nourishment to anal-retentive routine, defense mechanisms of control to passionate exchange. Food transforms from a physical necessity to something invested with the basic need for human contact.

The story begins, as most standard romantic comedies, with a desperately lonely, diamond-in-the-rough beauty bogged down by a fatal flaw. Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck) is a renowned German chef, subsumed by her profession. Her art of cooking is utilized as a vehicle to remain detached from the world; she is a veritable food snob. Business-like and headstrong, she explains that cooking is about “precision and timing,” not passion and love, the things lacking in her life. Her kitchen is immaculate, cold, and sterile reflecting a mental state of comfortable isolation. If a customer complains, she exasperatedly tells them the exact temperature at which foie gras should be prepared. She lies on her therapist’s couch (at the suggestion of her boss) enumerating recipes, further annunciating the fact that food is her life nexus.

But it is not therapy, but rather a tragic accident which threatens change in her stable, solitary world. After her sister is killed, Martha is thrust into the role of a helpless surrogate mother to her melancholic niece Lina. To make matters worse, Martha’s boss has hired an Italian sous-chef who endangers her neurotic kitchen control by playing “Volare” and venturing to introduce gnocchi to the menu. A tempestuous relationship ensues as Lina shuns Martha for not being her mother, Martha hates Mario for his unprofessional antics, and Mario resolves the entire problem single-handedly with his charismatic, effervescent Italian touch. It is just that easy.

In a pivotal scene, Martha must bring Lina to work with her for lack of a baby-sitter. After starving herself to reject Martha’s love, Mario magically gets her to eat. After countless trials and tribulations, Martha exclaims to Lina, “I wish I had a recipe to follow to take care of you.” A puritanical, icy-cold professional woman is forced to face a messy reality of Italians and rebellious children. She is so far-gone that the sight of a dirty kitchen is cause for hyperventilation. Helpless in child-rearing, she undergoes a metamorphosis thanks to Mario. Stereotypical German reserve is the perfect antithesis to passionate Italian sociability. Essentially, this film states that Martha needs a man.

The pro-nuclear family message panders to a relationship-starved audience. Symbolism is laid on rather thick: Martha cools her fury in a blue-filtered freezer-room and she laments, “in the tank, a lobster eats itself from the inside out.” Ceremoniously letting her hair down, –another hackneyed film device — she discovers that food can be a source of community and pleasure, instead of a rigid instrument of order and control.

But Gedeck is a complex Martha, plunging deep into herself, flashing grim, severe looks to express she is on the brink of hysteria. Mario’s character is hardly fleshed out and the ensuing romance is too good to be true. Albeit low-key sentimentally, Martha’s transformation is predictable and formulaic. Mostly, Martha needed a life, and we need a more provocative film.

Archived article by Danielle Billotti