Friday, October 25, 2013

Christian Vincent's HAUTE CUISINE proves both food heaven and Frot heaven (Catherine variety)

Newly available via Netflix streaming, the succulent HAUTE CUISINE (Les saveurs du Palais) is even better than I imagined, while viewing it on a particularly crummy video link provided by The Weinstein Company (its distributor) in which the company logo was plastered over the subtitles, making them difficult to read. Once that was fixed, the movie came across our streaming facility so poorly that everything was blurred almost to non-recognition. One phone call to the tech department resulted in a helpful move of the logo away from the subtitles, but a second call about the blurred images proved no help at all. (This is perhaps not the best manner in which to present your film to critics.) Now, seeing it again in hi-def, with its incredibly delicious-looking cooking in sharp relief, I would call this film a must-see for the foodie audience. For the rest of us, thanks to the reasons detailed below, it's a whole lot more.

As directed and co-written (with Etienne Comar, from the book by the chef herself, Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch) by Christian Vincent (La séparation, La discrète), Haute Cuisine tells us of the woman who served as the first female chef for a French President (in this case, François Mitterrand). Though the names of both Mitterand and Delpeuch have been changed, this is clearly their story, and it's a good one: filled with the kind of feminism that has no ax to grind, save the simple demand that this chef (below) be allowed the right to do her job.

The film is organized as a flashback during the final days of this chef's later job, feeding a large group of workers on a post in the Antarctic, during which we're fed flashbacks of how Hortense, as the film names her, came to be employed at the palace and what then transpired. Running but 90 minutes, Haute Cuisine moves fast, too: M. Vincent is no piker in the pacing department.

The film is mostly about work. We learn almost nothing about the personal life of our chef. But so genuinely interesting is her job cooking for the President -- discovering what he wants and likes and then preparing it, sometimes surmounting sizable obstacles -- that there's no need for more. And thank the lord, this is no piece of food porn, as have been a number of recent films covering famous restaurants and/or chefs. Instead, we see and feel here a genuine love of food and French cooking by both the chef and the President. The movie is also too much fun for food porn, filled as it is with juicy characters and enough drama to easily carry us along.

Vincent and his casting director Aurélie Guichard have brought together an exquisite cast, small roles to stars, then properly stepped aside and let the actors do their work. The real glory of the film, however rests in the performance of its star, Catherine Frot (above), a fine French actress we see far too little of here in the USA. For whatever reason, most of her movies don't make it to the States; the last time we saw her was in The Page Turner (2006) and Angel of Mine (2008). Ms Frot is an immense talent but she's not the showy kind. She does what's needed and makes every moment real. She's particularly gifted at playing intelligent, thoughtful characters; watching her, you always feel a deep interior life below the surface. And she can do everything from comedy -- high and low -- to dark drama equally well.

Frot is the movie, but huge help is provided by a couple of other actors: the charming little fellow who portrays the President, Jean d'Ormesson (above and below), an 88-year-old man making only his second acting appearance here. Short, slight and quite elfin-like but bristling with energy and charm, he and his scenes with Frot are the film's highlights -- along with those mouth-watering food preparations.

The only other actor with a role large enough to register strongly is that gorgeous young performer Arthur Dupont (shown below with Ms Frot), of One to Another (Chacun sa nuit) and Bus Palladium, playing Hortense's assistant and budding pastry chef. It's always fun to see actors run the gamut, and Dupont proves as sweet and cheerful here as he was dark and/or sexually transgressive in those earlier movies.

Haute Cuisine was still playing in theaters as recently as last week; what a nice surprise to find it already available on Netflix streaming.

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