Department of Theatre and Film
No Tables at Dorsia: American Psycho, Food, and Failed Masculinity
One may not immediately think of Mary Harron’s 2000 film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial novel American Psycho as a “food film.” However, from its opening frames, the film foregrounds food in provocative ways. As the film begins, drops of a red substance fall against a white background. Low-pitched, ominous-sounding music pulsates on the soundtrack, and the viewer may immediately suspect that this red substance is blood and that the murder and mayhem so gruesomely detailed in Ellis’s novel has already begun. However, as the red drops fall and splat upon a white surface, they begin to look more like jelly than blood. The next shot presents the red substance pouring and then subsiding to a drizzle. Then a hand raises a stainless steel chef’s knife that descends, not into the neck of a screaming victim, but into a piece of rare beef. At this point, it is obvious that these are shots from an upscale restaurant, not a murder scene, but as the film’s narrative proceeds, behaviors linked to the two locales – the restaurant and the murder scene – begin to mirror each other in ways that, when examined, reveal a great deal about how Harron (and co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner) use food and food behaviors to depict the failure of masculinity in this film.
Food prominently figures in the film, set in New York City in the late 1980s, as the main character and narrator, 27-year-old Wall Street up-and-comer Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), and his fellow Wall Street power players talk shop over meals and obsess over obtaining reservations at the city’s most trendy and upscale restaurants. It is against this milieu that Bateman begins to lose his mind and devote his evenings to brutal acts of torture and murder. Given the importance of food in Bateman’s life, it is not surprising that his nefarious activities, mostly directed toward women, are inextricably linked with food and consumption, and eventually leads him to cannibalism. Bateman attempts to exert his masculinity through both his murderous activities and his food behaviors, but he ultimately fails. Tellingly, he tries in vain throughout the film to make an ever-elusive reservation at Dorsia, and it is through her depiction of Bateman’s food-related failures that Harron skewers notions of white masculine superiority.
From the film’s outset, Bateman’s masculinity-in-peril is intimately linked to food and food behaviors. The film’s opening scene takes place, as the shots described previously intimate, in a restaurant. The name of the establishment is Pastelles, and the décor is dominated, appropriately enough, by soft pastels; its waiters delicately deliver dishes to tables and smilingly inform customers about their menu, which contains such eco-friendly dishes as “grilled free-range rabbit with herb french-fries.” Sitting at one of the tables are Bateman and two of his friends, Timothy Brice (Justin Theroux) and Craig McDermott (Josh Lucas), who fidget nervously over their drinks. Brice complains, “God, I hate this place. It’s a chicks’ restaurant. Why aren’t we at Dorsia?” McDermott snickers and replies, “Because Bateman won’t give the maitre d’ head.” McDermott’s haranguing is interrupted as the fourth member of their party, David Van Patten (Bill Sage), returns to the table and complains that the restaurant does not “have a good bathroom to do coke in.”
This opening reveals a great deal about how the men in this narrative think about food and conceptualize food spaces. First, food and food spaces are explicitly gendered, as Brice dismisses Pastelles as a “chick’s restaurant,” a space that is too “soft” and “feminine” to contain their “manly” habits like drinking liquor straight up and doing coke in the bathroom. Second, their conversation alludes – albeit in a joking way – to Bateman being unable to procure reservations at Dorisa, a restaurant that, within the context of the film, represents the apex of both social standing and manliness. This highly desirable food space is apparently inaccessible to Bateman and would only become accessible if Bateman would perform fellacio on the maitre d’, the most “unmanly” of actions within the hyper-heterosexist world of these Wall Street power players. This is only the first of many times that Bateman will fail to perform his masculinity in the arena of food. With food spaces and the ability to nab reservations at the trendiest restaurants looming so large in the identities of the film’s characters, Bateman’s failure to “effectively” perform in terms of food behaviors and masculinity presents him with an identity crisis.
This crisis can be observed in the next scene of the film. After they leave Pastelles, Bateman and friends head to a nightclub. At the bar, Bateman attempts to pay for his drink order with drink tickets, and the female bartender informs him that this is a cash bar and his tickets are no good, another food faux pas for Bateman that highlights his impotence. Bateman’s frustration causes him to snap, yelling at the bartender: “You’re a fucking ugly bitch. I want to stab you to death and play around with your blood.” Surprisingly, however, the bartender does not react to Bateman’s threat, but dispassionately hands him his drinks. It is possible that she did not hear Bateman’s threats in the loud nightclub, but it is more likely that Bateman never uttered his threats and that his vindictive words were all in his mind (Harron does not obviously signpost Bateman’s outburst as fantasy). Either way, the larger point remains the same: that Bateman is simply not seen or noticed by those surrounding him and that he has failed to carve out an identity for himself.
Repeatedly, Bateman’s feelings of invisibility and powerlessness are conveyed through his failure to master food environments. A few scenes later in the film, Bateman and his fiancé, Evelyn Williams (Reese Witherspoon), attend a dinner date with Timothy Brice and some of their other friends. The restaurant this time around is more to Bateman’s tastes; it is called Espace and is more “masculine” with industrial-themed décor dominated by exposed brick and black and grey colors. Even the flower arrangement – a single flower jutting up erect in the middle of the table – is masculine. Although this is an environment more fitting for Bateman’s hypermasculine fantasies, this is also an environment in which Bateman cannot see himself or bring his fantasies to fruition. When Bateman and Evelyn arrive, Bryce hands Bateman a copy of Espace’s menu, which is engraved on a piece of metal. Tellingly, when Bateman looks at the menu, his reflection is blurry and distorted, which visually emphasizes that Espace is a place in which Bateman, quite literally, cannot “see himself.” This blindness is underscored by Bryce’s comment that “the menu’s in Braille.”
Bateman’s masculine fantasies are thwarted and crumble from here. While the party consumes dinner, Bateman’s voiceover reveals that he suspects Bryce, the same man who dismissed Pastelles as a “chick’s restaurant” and who trumped Bateman’s masculinity by landing a good table at Espace, is having an affair with Evelyn, his fiancé. It turns out that Bateman is having an affair of his own with another person sitting at the table, Courtney Rawlinson (Samantha Mathis). However, this affair can bring Bateman no true pleasure because he is not “stealing her away” from a worthy opponent; Courtney is engaged to the effeminate Luis Carrurthers (Matt Ross), whom Bateman describes in his voiceover as “the biggest doofus” at the workplace. Further, Luis’s presence at the table threatens Bateman with the specter of homosexuality that constantly undermines Bateman’s attempts at hypermasculinity. This threat fully emerges later in the film when Bateman attempts to strangle Luis in a restroom, and Luis mistakenly thinks Bateman is coming onto him. A horrified Bateman can do nothing but flee the scene.
However, Bateman’s failed masculinity is most powerfully enunciated in terms of food behaviors, more specifically his many abortive attempts to reserve a table at Dorsia, the most exclusive restaurant in the city. A representative scene takes place soon after the dinner at Espace. At his apartment, Bateman talks on the phone to Courtney and tries to get her to have dinner with him. In the background, hardcore pornography plays on Bateman’s television while he tries to convince Courtney that she is dating a “tumbling, tumbling dickweed.” Courtney, on a heavy dose of benzos, ignores Bateman’s advances, until he promises dinner at Dorisa. With Courtney hooked, Bateman hangs up and scrambles for Dorsia’s number in a guidebook titled “1987 New York City Restaurants.” He calls Dorsia and asks to reserve a table for two, but the man’s voice on the other end of the line just laughs at him. The film cuts from a close up shot of Bateman on the phone to a long shot of him sitting helpless on the phone, an edit that emphasizes his powerlessness.
This embarrassing scenario happens a few more times to Bateman, and after he fails to assert himself through food behaviors, he turns to torture and murder. However, Bateman’s acts of brutality are still intimately tied to food behaviors, which is fitting considering that both are avenues for masculine expression in the world of the film. The first few murders in the film show a clear connection to food behaviors. The first murder, albeit implied, takes place after the dinner at Espace. At the ATM, Bateman notices a woman, and they walk down the sidewalk side-by-side. The film then cuts to Bateman having an argument with the owners of a dry cleaning business over the proper way to clean some white bed sheets that he has brought in. The sheets have been stained bright red (apparently because Bateman murdered the woman from the previous scene), and when an acquaintance of Bateman’s comes into the dry cleaners and asks him what happened to the sheets, he says, “Cranberry juice. Cranapple,” while the editing suggests that it is the murdered woman’s blood smeared all over the sheets. Food also factors into the first murder that happens onscreen in American Psycho when Bateman kills a person who is homeless. At first, Bateman acts compassionate toward the individual, asking, “You want some money? Some food?” However, after the man desperately gasps, “I’m hungry,” Bateman pronounces, “I don’t have anything in common with you” and savagely stabs him and stomps his dog to death.
Afterward, Bateman worries in voiceover, “My nightly blood lust has overflowed into my days . . . I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.” Sure enough, Bateman’s mask of sanity does slip when he crosses paths with Paul Allen (Jared Leto), a successful fellow broker. It is clear that Allen is a force to be reckoned with because, if for no other reason, he is apparently able to obtain reservations at Dorsia anytime he wants (Dorsia has “Great sea urchin ceviche,” Allen brags to Bateman and his friends). When Allen encounters Bateman, he does not even know who he is and constantly calls him Halberstram, thinking that Bateman is Marcus Halberstram, another man who works at the firm and looks almost identical to Bateman. The two men agree to meet for dinner at Texarkana, a restaurant that is, predictably, not up to Allen’s standards; he leans over the table and whispers condescendingly, “We should have gone to Dorsia. I could have gotten us a table.”
During the meal, Bateman attempts to “come out” to Allen as a murderer. Interestingly, during this moment, the camera offers a close-up shot of a plate of meat and some grilled vegetables that Bateman pokes at with his fork. Then, the camera cuts to a close up of Bateman’s face as he matter-of-factly says, “I like to dissect girls. Did you know I’m utterly insane?” Allen does not acknowledge Bateman’s comment, similar to the situation with the bartender earlier in the film. Nonetheless, this moment – the close-up of Bateman toying with his food cutting directly to his confession – provides clear connections between food, murder, gender, power, and identity in this film. Unable to solidify his masculinity and identity through food behaviors (Allen does not even know who he is having dinner with), Bateman resorts to serial killing – more specifically “dissecting girls” – as a way to establish his identity. If toying with his food does not get him noticed, maybe toying with women’s bodies will.
Richard Dyer has noted that “as a cultural categorization, made by police, psychiatry and popular culture alike, serial killing remains an ostensibly white male phenomenon” (38). Ironically, however, “White masculinity” also “occupies the space of ordinariness and . . . invisibility” (Dyer 44). Many serial killers – at least those in cinema – misinterpret their “invisibility” as a weakness when, in actuality, the invisibility afforded them by their whiteness places them in “the ideal . . . position of power in everyday life . . . seeing but unseen, unmarked by particularities of class, race, or gender” (Dyer 44-5). In an attempt to “triumph” over their invisibility, these people turn to serial killing and prey on those who are visible in our culture, “specifically . . . women or socially inferior men (young, black, gay)” (38). It is not insignificant that the homeless person Bateman murders is a person of color. Dyer’s taxonomy of the white serial killer perfectly fits Patrick Bateman; he is white, male, affluent, and so invisible that people like Paul Allen do not even recognize him. In the film, Bateman’s invisibility is most consistently depicted in terms of food behaviors – more specifically, his inability to get good tables at good restaurants – so Bateman articulates his attempts to become visible in terms of food behaviors.
Given the connection between food behaviors and serial killing in Bateman’s psyche, it is fitting that Bateman eventually tries the ultimate combination of the two: cannibalism. Bateman’s journey toward cannibalism is prefigured early in the film, as Bateman works out in his apartment while The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) plays on the television in the background. Later in the film, Bateman stores a woman’s head in his freezer by the sorbet. In another scene, Bateman bites into a female victim and completes the Texas Chain Saw fantasy by killing another of his victims with a chainsaw. Ultimately, Bateman spirals out of control, and after he begins shooting random people in the street, the police pursue him. As he hides in his office, Bateman calls his lawyer on the phone and tearfully records a full confession of his ghastly deeds on his answering machine. Near the conclusion of his confession, Bateman chokes out: “I even . . . (long pause) . . . I ate some of their brains . . . (gags) and I tried to cook a little.” The presence of cannibalism illustrates the complete confluence of food behaviors and murder in Bateman’s attempts to assert his masculinity. However, the slight gag during his cannibalistic confession proves that he still fails to be “manly” in his food behavior.
The conclusion of the film proves all of Bateman’s efforts to be “manly” have been a failure. It turns out that, in all likelihood, none of Bateman’s murders even took place. Paul Allen, whom Bateman thinks he murdered after their dinner at Texarkana, is, by all accounts, still alive, and Bateman’s lawyer refuses to believe that Bateman, whom he refers to as a “boring, spineless, lightweight,” could be a murderer. Whether or not the murders actually took place is moot; the point is no one knows what happened, and Bateman fails to cement an identity and assert his masculinity on all fronts. Thus, Harron skewers the white masculine desire to be noticed, not allowing Bateman either a table at Dorsia or a headline in the newspaper. The conclusion of the film mirrors the opening: Bateman sits at a restaurant table with his friends as they fuss over dry beers, and this time, Bateman is left out of the food conversation altogether. Bateman’s final voiceover reveals, “There is no catharsis.” This catharsis might have come from Bateman’s expression of his masculinity, but his failure to master food behaviors, spaces, and environments makes this catharsis as elusive as a table at Dorsia.
Thus, paying particular attention to food matters in American Psycho reveals the ways in which Harron interrogates masculinity in this film. Like many films, American Psycho is up for a “reboot,” with distributor Lionsgate currently in pre-production on the project. In late December, a celebrity news blogger, screen name “NDRU03,” posted an “American Psycho remake wishlist,” offering ten things he would like to see in the new movie. One of the things on the list was “actually get[ting] to see Dorsia this time.” However, given the ways that food is positioned in the narrative, letting Bateman into Dorsia would ruin the entire point of Harron’s film, an example of just how important food is to an understanding of this adaptation.
American Psycho. Dir. Mary Harron. Lionsgate, 2000.
Dyer, Richard. Se7en. London: BFI, 1999. Print.
NDRU03. “American Psycho Remake Wishlist.” OH NO THEY DIDN’T! LiveJournal,
29 December 2011. Web. 30 January 2012.