Saturday, April 19, 2014

Film Review: Haute Cuisine (2012)

The English title is Haute Cuisine.
Hortense Laborie runs an acclaimed cookery school in the south of France until one day, much to her surprise, she's whisked off to Paris and the Elysee Palace to be the personal chef to the President of the France. The personal chef's function is to cater the President's lunches as well as any small dinners for close family and friends. The much larger main kitchen handles bigger and more formal events. Hortense is told that what the President wants is traditional, classic French cuisine, the kind of food his grandmother made. Hortense follows these instructions to the letter, but after two years the bureaucracy and the in-fighting with the main kitchen wear her down and she resigns. She then takes a one year job as the cook at a French research station in the Antarctic.

If that plot description sounds bare bones, so is the execution of the film, which, as it turns out, is what makes it so good. The story is based (loosely) on the career of an actual chef who did the cooking for Francois Mitterand. Christian Vincent, the director and writer of Haute Cuisine, concentrates his story exclusively on the craft and logistics of cooking in the Elysee Palace. It would have been terribly easy, and tempting, to add in a romantic sub-plot or a comic/dramatic blowup with the main kitchen, but none of these things happen.Vincent has an interesting story and character to work with and he lets those elements pull the audience along. The style and purpose of the film is neatly described in a scene with the President, who complains that his former personal chef was always decorating desserts with sugar roses, which were beautiful but unnecessary. There are no sugar roses on this film.

If the story is unadorned, the look of the film certainly isn't. There's a fair amount of gastroporn on view here, and the interior of the Elysee Palace is one giant sugar rose. Glamour shots of food and furnishings aside, this is a beautifully crafted film with pitch perfect casting, dialogue, and understated yet elegant cinematography; in sum, it's as carefully and lovingly made as some of the food on display. Special mention to Catherine Frot who takes the lead role and creates an interesting character out of not much raw material.

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