The existence of hell is a problem for theologians: Why would a just and merciful god create a playground for the perpetual torture of his children? But for the rest of us it’s a comfort. Never in human history have we possessed so capacious a knowledge of the various and specific iniquities of the world — and so little hope of them ever being rectified. Evil abounds; justice is scarce. Every day brings more nuanced data about the criminally wealthy, the lives they live at our expense, and the elaborate means at their disposal to escape judgment. In this context, the promise of otherworldly damnation is a solace. “We need to believe that the powerful can suffer, that they can be humiliated, that they can be made to feel there is no way out,” theologian Adam Kotsko writes of this dilemma. “If there can’t be any hope for us, we can at least hope that one day there will be hopelessness for the destroyers of our hope.”
Hell, in other words, is our consolation prize for the futile dream of justice — a damnation deferred. My enemies are in power, but I can picture them in flames. And so it goes, of late, at the movies. In film after film, farcically wealthy characters are trapped (usually on private islands and/or boats) without hope of escape and elaborately punished for their moral failings, while we, the audience, are invited to sneer and dared to sympathize. The fantasy is symptomatic. The true villains of our time are ensconced in cocoons of comfort, immune to accountability. They enjoy their lives; they are not burdened by guilt or shame; the other shoe is never going to drop. To see them suffer, we have the cinema.
Not that I begrudge anyone their fantasies. All these films — Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion, Mark Mylod’s The Menu, Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness, to name 2022’s entries in the “eat the rich” genre — offer moments of slapstick satisfaction. A grotesque, 15-minute scatological set piece in Östlund’s Palme d’Or–winning, Oscar-nominated satire at sea, during which the passengers of a luxury cruise liner succumb to seasickness after dutifully consuming a gelatinous, seven-course shellfish meal during a storm, is brutally funny. This sort of clumsy but canny symbolism also animates The Menu, in which executioner-chef Julian Slowick (a relentlessly dour Ralph Fiennes) orchestrates an evening of Tantalean punishments for his churlish patrons.
As critics have noted, there is an element of feeble wish fulfillment in these works, an unctuous eagerness to flatter the audience’s moral sensibilities while satiating a furtive lust for class warfare. (Somehow, hostility to the ultrarich has become a marker of modish cultural literacy.) At other times, a frisson of class consciousness serves only as an alibi for an audience eager to live vicariously in luxury. (HBO’s White Lotus and Succession, which Mylod frequently directs, manage this dance particularly well.) As viewers, we get to have it both ways: Indulge in a fantasy of extravagance, and then, remembering we’ll never have it for ourselves, relish watching it turn to (literal) shit.
But if Östlund’s Triangle Sadness and Mylod’s The Menu are explicit in their class sympathies, they are still confused in their politics. Watching these films, I found my class rage dissipating — giving way to pity — in proportion to the degree of suffering onscreen (and the cruelty and relish with which it was inflicted). The targets are cartoonishly deserving, but even caricatures can bleed, weep, and shriek. In these moments, the moral valence seems to flip, from a didactic invitation to enjoy this carnival of comeuppance to pious scolding: Be careful what you wish for. Like Slowick’s guests, we are served a delicious concoction and then punished for wanting to eat it.
With the exception of Johnson’s Glass Onion, which reserves its harshest punishments for its dimwitted Elon Musk stand-in (Edward Norton), this generation of “eat the rich” films has a high casualty count. In The Menu, Slowick’s kitchen staff burns alive along with his patrons. The crew in Triangle of Sadness are no less covered in puke and shit than their guests; those who don’t drown are just as shipwrecked. It’s tempting to interpret this outcome as typical Hollywood handwringing about the dangers of class warfare (a lesson for mutineers who sink their own ship), but I don’t think that’s quite right. There is an underlying logic to this distribution of suffering: After all, what we’re fantasizing about is not revolution, nor justice, but a much bleaker eschaton. The have-nots can only hope to drag the haves into hell — where we already reside. With cruelty and hopelessness for all.
There’s another reason, though, that these films fail to satisfy as narratives of class vengeance: They are not concerned primarily with the old Marxist conflict between owning and working classes. Rather, they stage a much more disturbing and ambivalent showdown: between service workers and their clients. What distinguishes this encounter is its intimacy and its confusion of hierarchies. Victorian notions of “upstairs” and “downstairs” — Triangle of Sadness concisely depicts the class and race stratification of the ship’s layers — conjure a hierarchical coherence through architecture that is consistently betrayed by experience. Care and service work involve a messy mingling of powerful and unpowerful bodies, an entanglement of their desires and needs, which the capitalist/labor conflict does not. And for its smooth functioning, service work requires a shared suspension of belief about who is at the mercy of whom. We must all pretend we don’t know that the customer has put his life in the hands of his server, that a nurse has the power to allow her patient to die, that a cook has the power to poison his patron.
Most importantly (and treacherously), service work relies on a mobilization of affects we otherwise associate with love: soothing, caring, consoling, feeding, touching, and satisfying. The Menu is explicit about this dynamic but confused about its implications. Slowick describes his violent pageantry as a revolt of the “shit-shovelers” against the “takers.” And he challenges Margo (Anya Taylor-Joy) — a sex worker attending the meal by accident, as a date for one of Slowick’s intended victims — to choose sides. “I know a fellow service-industry worker when I see one,” he tells her. The nature of service work, he laments, has robbed him of the joy he might otherwise take in cooking. “I haven’t desired to cook for someone in ages,” he says, “and one does miss that feeling” — clumsily inviting Margo to recognize her own alienation in his.
And yet, we already know Slowick is dissimulating, that his murderous rage has another origin. The entire spectacle of The Menu has only one intended viewer: an elderly, stupefied woman who sits alone, apart from the other patrons, consuming only wine, remaining utterly unperturbed by the violence and terror around her. “I’ve been fooled into trying to satisfy people who could never be satisfied,” Slowick intones, first referring to his ungrateful patrons, and then, pointing to the woman in the corner, “starting with her” — his alcoholic mother.
She is Slowick’s first customer, the first woman he longed to satisfy, on whose sustenance he relied and, in turn, whose indifference he couldn’t bear. Even as a boy, when Slowick saved his mother’s life from his abusive father, she was unmoved, too drunk to notice. Slowick was drawn to haute cuisine for the same reason it drove him mad: by a desperation to please someone who could never be satiated, who would never even notice his efforts. It is no coincidence that his final menu will transform the desperate son into the omnipotent father, his customers into traumatized children huddled before him.
If service work trades in affects we learn through intimacy, our ambivalence about it is likewise structured by the family and its history. Margo’s most distasteful experience as a sex worker is one which makes this perversity plain: She is hired by a man to dress as his daughter and agree with whatever he says. As he masturbates, he tells her, “I’m a good father.” We can’t help but be reminded of our own mothers and lovers by those we are paid to satisfy, of our own children by those we are paid to care for, of our own fathers by those who tell us what to do. Our responses to the pleasures, abuses, and humiliations of service work are inevitably inflected by traces of the love and hate we have felt in the family romance. For any simple revenge fantasy set in the service industry, it’s a problem that we only sometimes want to kill our parents.
Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite (2019), one of the films responsible for the recent trend in class-conscious horror/dramedy, understands the intimate, familial dimension of service work completely. Brother and sister Kim Ki-taek (Choi Woo-Shik) and Ki-jung (Park So-dam) manipulate the prejudices and naïveté of a young mother to insinuate themselves and their parents into the wealthy woman’s household — as domestic labor. This fragile symbiosis, in which each member of the destitute Kim family is assigned to attend to the needs of one of the wealthy Parks, is maintained by performances of respect for a “line” separating the private lives of the Parks from the work lives of the Kims. In reality, this boundary is constantly traversed — in touches, desires, indiscretions, and (to wealthy Mr. Park’s chagrin) smells — because it doesn’t exist. It never has. Indeed, sexual chemistry between Mr. Park and his wife is only ignited by allowing the smells that disgust him to penetrate his skin, in fantasizing about crossing the line himself.
This bundle of charged affects — fantasized and real — is the unacknowledged tender in which the material relationship between the two families is negotiated. It is, however, unstable. It functions only as a closed system, a single inviolate organism. But it was never so. The familial relationship is always embedded in a larger system of exploitation, exclusion, and exchange; and in the Park household, the violent consequences of the nuclear fantasy live below the floorboards, where there is yet another “downstairs” to be reckoned with.
Parasite’s insight is an inversion of that which animates its successors: If The Menu and Triangle of Sadness clumsily conjure the service workplace as a theater for retributive violence, Parasite demonstrates that even an idealized vision of class compromise in the care economy — a family of takers embedded completely into a family of havers, in which intra-familial desire and inter-familial exchange are mingled harmoniously — ultimately invites its own eruption of barbarity.
The official, but spurious, separation between family and work generates a great deal of confusion. Freud himself made this mistake: by constructing the oedipal drama around a nuclear family that scarcely existed for his patients. It is striking to the modern reader how frequently the sexual dreams, fantasies, and traumas that his patients report involve governesses, tutors, and other domestics. The nuclear family, in other words, was porous from the start, libidinal and economic exchange entwined, upstairs and downstairs together, family and labor relations under one roof.
The reality of their comingling explains the hesitation and timorous uncertainty that bedevil rote narratives of class animosity — because the family, the first hierarchy we know, is a place that fosters the emotional resources for revolt as well as repression, for conflict as well as resolution, for betrayal as well as loyalty; for tolerating, even loving those who abuse us and for rebelling against them; for rejecting unearned authority and for submitting to it.
Likewise, the family is the first place we learn that there may be no one to turn to, no outside authority to adjudicate the traumas inflicted on us by others. Sometimes the best you can do is look into the eyes of your tormenter and say, “Go to hell.”