Monday, September 13, 2010

Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker's KINGS OF PASTRY debuts at Film Forum

Interspersing family with pastry, cooking with competitions, professionalism with chatty informality, KINGS OF PASTRY provides a field day for sweet-toothed film-goers who love food -- especially dessert. The product of the wife/husband filmmaking team of Chris Hegedus (shown below, left) and D A Pennebaker (below, right), the movie should have you salivating (from mouth and eye) via the likes of wedding cakes, tarts and various sugar showcases.  This couple was responsible for that most interesting documentary The War Room, while Hegedus made the smart and Pennebaker the classic Dylan doc Don't Look Back, so they know what they're doing. Yet initially, Kings of Pastry looks like a bit of a lark for the team.

It is, in a way, for anyone who is loath to compare politics, economics and the creativity of Dylan to mere desserts. Yet, the more we enter this world of kitchen creativity, the less it seems like the kitschy stuff we see on our own TV chefs shows (though I must say that some of the "creations" shown here do merit the term kitsch) and more like genuine artistry.  The movie tracks the group of men (and just where are all the women?  Well, France is still one of the more sexist of western countries) vying for the honor of being declared by President Sarkozy one of the prestigious Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (Best Craftsmen of France) in a three-day contest that takes place every four years.

Interestingly, this competition does not have only a single winner. As a judge points out, everyone could win (though this never happens): You just have to be good enough.  But the fact that several can and do become part of this elite group makes the chance for glory more possible. And it also makes so many competitions, which allow one winner while everyone else remains a loser, seem a tad paltry and pointlessly exclusive. I've seen the craftsmen at Baccarat create their designs in crystal, so I can say that watching the chef with whom we spend the most time -- Jacquy Pfeiffer of the French Pastry School in Chicago-- as he crafts his angel designs, seems every bit as creative and amazing.

As we watch these chefs prepare (the filmmakers zero in on Pfeiffer and his family in particular, while spending less time with a few others), we learn things about sugar, pastry, icing and the like that, while they may never make their way into our own kitchens, are fascinating nonetheless (coconut dough! the havoc wreaked by humidity on sugar cakes!). The camera follows these chefs in close quarters, and the editing often makes for quick, sharp fun. The music, too, including a jazz/country rendition of the Marseillaise, is sometimes delightful.

As the competition nears and then begins, the time pressure becomes enormous, and the suspense mounts. When an accident happens -- at the screening I attended, audible gasps were heard -- it's like a punch to the gut.  Should the chef -- can he -- go on? You'll find out. Seeing the other chefs rally behind him is a moving experience.  And the winners?  I can only say: You'll be surprised.

At the finale, watching the array of incredible desserts rolled out here is like seeing that parade of fashion at the close of Anne Fontaine's Coco Before Chanel. Yet nothing will last longer than a little while. Unlike those lucky judges, however, we can only view the edible masterpieces. Damn -- we can't taste 'em!

Kings of Pastry, from First Run Features, opens this Wednesday, September 15, at New York City's Film Forum.  Click here for upcoming -- limited but nationwide! -- playdates, with cities and theaters included.

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