Interview: Oren Moverman, director of The Dinner

Stephen Applebaum met the Israeli director of The Dinner, which stars Steve Coogan and Richard Gere


Food in movies isn't always just for eating. Marco Ferrari used it to satirise consumerism and the bourgeoisie in La Grande Bouffe, while Peter Greenaway located his nauseating attack on the Thatcher government, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover, in a kind of culinary hell. In a similar vein, the Israeli-American filmmaker Oren Moverman has set his zeitgeisty psychological thriller, The Dinner, in a restaurant that's so absurdly over-curated and pretentious, it practically screams 'for the 1% only'. 

Originally written by Moverman for the Australian star Cate Blanchett to direct, the film transplants Dutch author Herman Koch's bestselling novel from the Netherlands to the aforementioned establishment in America, where two brothers – an unhinged former teacher (Steve Coogan) and a slick politician (Richard Gere) - and their wives (Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall) gather to decide what to do about their teenage sons.

The film has a satirical edge that is new for Moverman. However, like his previous features, including his double-Oscar-nominated directorial debut, The Messenger, about death notification teams in the US Army, and LA police corruption drama Rampart, The Dinner is still tethered to reality. This is the only way he feels comfortable making films, the Jaffa-born writer-director, who co-penned Todd Haynes' radical deconstruction of Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, tells me from his home in New York.

“If I'm lucky enough to direct a film, it needs to have some connection to something that's happening in the world or in life,” he says. “I think it's important for me, otherwise I would feel a little lost.”

Moverman “strongly” believes that this perspective comes from where he grew up, although he hasn't lived in Israel for a long time, having moved to the United States after serving in the IDF.

“Being engaged with the world, being aware of topics and social issues, is in my Israeli roots, but also my Jewish roots,” he says. “It's in my background and in my understanding of the history of my family and the history of our people. So I think there is a tradition that I try to tap into, which is a kind of socially aware humanist tradition, as pretentious as that sounds.”

Moverman first lived in America from age 13 to 18. He returned after military service with mixed emotions.

“I was in the occupation of Lebanon, the occupation of Palestine and the first intifada, so I left [Israel], even before the peace process, quite pessimistic and probably quite angry, to the point of saying I'm never moving back,” he recalls.

On the other hand, he was optimistic about his own future: “I wanted to be outside of Israel and I arrived highly motivated, and, after almost four years in the military, hungry for knowledge and challenges. Going to college at 22 [to study cinema], which is a little late here, was just wonderful.”

He started out by writing screenplays and doing journalism. In 2009, The Messenger was released. He has now directed four movies, enough to see a pattern in their focus on men in psychological and emotional turmoil; or, as he puts it, “the collapse of the theatricality of masculinity and the exposure of what's underneath.”

Moverman works with a mental health organisation called The Campaign to Change Direction and in The Dinner punches up the novel's theme of mental illness, hinting at the idea that whatever Coogan's volatile character Paul is suffering from, may have been passed to his son. The characters aren't Jewish but I wonder whether there is an oblique connection – either conscious or unconscious – to the phenomenon of inherited trauma that Moverman, whose mother's Polish family (she was born in British Mandate Palestine) lost many members in the Holocaust, might have seen in Israel.

“Absolutely,” he says, although he says he didn't really grasp how trauma had become almost a part of Jewish biology until he saw Natalie Portman's 2015 film,  A Tale of Love and Darkness, set around the founding of the State of Israel.

“I saw it with my wife and when I came out I said, 'For the first time I think I understand.'” Watching as an Ashkenazi Jew, the film was like a “diagnosis”, he recalls. “It really struck me that the trauma that we carry as Ashkenazi Jews, but also as Jews in general, from not just the Holocaust but our entire history, has become genetic, and carries on from generation to generation.

“And I think that mental illness is something that I have seen growing up, obviously among survivors but also people who didn't experience the Holocaust, but experienced the birth of Israel. All those things accumulate into something that has become a deep part of the psychological make-up of generations.”

Portman recently added her voice to the women recounting another kind of trauma caused by unnerving, often abusive, encounters with film industry figures. Moverman has been shocked by the “level and amount of stories” coming out - “I think anyone who isn't shocked is complicit” - but points out that there is a long history of such behaviour within the film industry. What has changed is that large numbers of alleged victims are now saying enough's enough, and being heard.

“This business is built on a lot of insecurity, a lot of desperation, a lot of money and power, and within all that there's a lot of room for people taking advantage,” he says. “So what is happening now, whether you accept it as something that is about the industry or something that's a reaction to Trump and how he's getting away with his behaviour, it couldn't be a more positive step.”

Trump's name was bound to come up, not least because of what Moverman calls The Dinner's “Trumpian vibe”. Although the book was published in 2009 and the film was “shot before we could imagine the travesty of the situation we are in”, it's there, he insists, in the way that the film touches on the tribalism of a group of people who see everyone else not like themselves as the other.

Paul, in particular, is someone who “embodies a little bit of white rage and definitely a lot of white privilege, but has also lost the ability to make sense of it all. I think that is what is behind a lot of the support for Trump”, suggests the filmmaker: “This being fed up with the way things are, the idea that nobody's telling the truth, that your perspective is the only perspective that is actually realistic and honest - all those things that are psychologically alarming feed into the attitudes that brought us to this moment. So I do think the film is tapping into what is happening now.” 

The Dinner is on general release 

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