The poster for Peter Hengl‘s first feature, Family Dinner, shows three characters holding hands outdoors, standing around a candlelit dinner table with a rabbit dish as both the visual focal point and the culinary centerpiece. This image suggests the Austrian film is foremost about food and eating. A game animal as the main course then hints at hunting and a rural setting. What the poster does not show, however, is the power food has over these characters, and where their robust appetites will finally lead them.
Around Easter, a 15-year-old named Simi (Nina Katlein) arrives at the rustic yet posh farm of her aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger). Claudia has since divorced Simi’s maternal uncle, so she is essentially cut off from that part of the family these days. Later the story reveals Simi’s visit is fueled by her desire to lose weight with help from her aunt, a once popular nutritionist. Claudia obliges, but she stresses one stipulation; she will stop helping if Simi does not take the regimen seriously.
Early on in Simi’s visit, there is a hint of Claudia’s intensity when she and her new husband Stefan (Michael Pink) bring up the fact that they are fasting for Lent. This does not stop Claudia from vicariously nourishing herself through her son Filip (Alexander Sladek); she continues to cook for both him and his cousin. All that changes for Simi, though, when she starts fasting as well; Claudia claims her niece must detox for a few days before she can go any further.
The indulgent meals Claudia prepares only for Filip point to something ominous on the horizon. Immediately, thoughts of Grimm Fairy Tales come to mind. And what does Claudia mean when she says she and Stefan are religious but not in the traditional way? Family Dinner all but tells on itself with these succulent clues, but at the same time, the adult characters never chew the scenery. Their performances give the impression something else could be in the works.
Hengl shows a lot of restraint in his first feature when he obviously could have done the opposite. Even as the protagonist contemplates eating toothpaste or the discarded parts of a dead rabbit because she is so hungry, the character’s response is never dramatic or inauthentic. Nina Katlein, who delivers a moderate but genuine performance, handles the piecemeal assault of morbid revelations and unsightly moments with a great deal of control and grace.
As much as it pains to say Family Dinner is predictable, its lack of surprises is not necessarily a hindrance, either. The audience being wise to the unmistakable goings-on, while Simi remains blissfully ignorant of her aunt’s fiendish plot, racks up the suspense. Most importantly is how Hengl exposes the relationship between food and humans. Claudia believes fasting will bring her enlightenment and other emotional riches. She has the luxury of being hungry by choice, and in doing so she thinks it will make her a better person. Then with Simi, she is deprived of more than food; Claudia chips away at her niece’s humanity by taking away what comforts her. Another filmmaker might misguidedly shout these nuances, whereas Hengl lets the audience figure the subtext out by themselves.
Family Dinner runs the risk of being underwhelming, largely because of its self-control and foreseeable finale, but a closer look reveals ingredients not visible on the surface.
Family Dinner screened at the Tribeca 2022 Film Festival.
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