Directed by Christian Vincent
One part dramatic biopic, one part foodie film with a dash of light-hearted comedy, “Haute Cuisine” serves up a pleasant but unremarkable narrative based on the true story of Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch’s short term as French President Francois Mitterrand’s private chef.
In writer and director Christian Vincent’s rendition of this political affair, Catherine Frot plays Hortense Laborie, a passionate cook who arrives at the Elysee Palace with humbled reluctance. Once there, however, she endeavors to produce only the finest home-cooked meals, advocating strongly for the use of high-quality ingredients from farms across France. Initially happy, despite regular feuds with Pascal Lepiq (Brice Fournier), Main Kitchen’s snarly head chef, Hortense’s enthusiasm fades when her delectably rich and costly farm-to-table cuisine comes under the scrutiny of palace authorities, who pressure Hortense into “trimming the fat.”
Viewers will find themselves clutching rumbling stomachs after ogling the enticing plates Hortense dishes up. Her debut meal is “Choux farci au Saumon de Tasmanie,” a salmon-stuffed cabbage presented with deceiving simplicity, but executed with uncompromising technical precision. Laurent Dailland’s flattering cinematography makes Hortense’s food even more mouth-watering. Crispy bread with a luscious spread and beautiful, marbled truffles or a traditional Saint-Honore, a flaky, buttery pastry topped with fragrant vanilla bean cream, is sure to keep the audience hungry for more. This film is a triumph of culinary authenticity, capturing the essence of, as Mitterrand requires, “the best of France” on a platter.
Frot has true talent, embodying Hortense’s character with both the grace and perseverance necessitated of a woman in the male-dominated environment of politics and cuisine. She is fiery, perfectionistic and decisive, a persuasive combination that demands the respect of both the actress and her role. Her brilliant sous chef, Nicolas (Arthur Dupont), is charming and sensitive to the point of endearment, and their comfortable camaraderie with the Elysee’s maitre d’hotel, Jean-Marc Luchet (Jean-Marc Roulot), is a shining gem in an otherwise emotionally isolated narrative. Jean d’Ormesson’s portrayal ofPresident Mitterrand is also worth noting for its convincing reservation but genuine playfulness in addition to his platonic chemistry with Frot’s character.
But while Vincent’s food-loving feature excels in its visual presentation and distinctly French personality, it is missing the tension and resolve of a real film drama. Though present in mere glimpses, Frot’s Hortense lacks the vulnerability and depth needed to effectively create a sympathetic connection with her audience. Aside from her friendships with Nicolas and Mitterrand, Hortense’s interactions with her other costars are starved for both viscosity and necessity. Her arguments with Main Kitchen’s Lepiq lose their fire, never amounting to more than a few standalone tantrums. Luchet disappears mid-storyline and, aside from their all-too-brief encounters, so does LePresident Mitterrand. As political affairs distract the politician, Hortense’s work becomes seemingly overlooked, and her once-promising friendship begins to feel one-sided. The remainder of her dull, duteous term at the palace leaves a bland aftertaste. Her boring “budgeting” sessions with the unappeasable palace advisers frequently end at a loss, but instead of maintaining the spirited resilience that made Hortense a heroine, Frot declines into a state of passivity that is frankly disappointing. By the film’s conclusion, even her strongest relationships seem disengaging and fruitless.
“Haute Cuisine” will satisfy any food lover simply with its decadent displays of classically elegant French cuisine. However, Vincent’s unambitious directing and decaying narrative will leave die-hard filmgoers craving a heartier installment.