It is France 1671, the court of Louis XIV. Vatel (Grard Depardieu), steward to Prince de Conde (Julian Glover), bustles about, madly orchestrating the food and entertainment for the King's visit. He must contend with the jealous machinations of de Lauzun (Tim Roth) and the amorous interest of the King's new mistress, Anne (Uma Thurman), as well as a multitude of infinitesimal details relating to his work. Although in command of an army of servants and inferiors, he is actually nothing more than a slave to the Prince who, in turn, is ruled by the King (Julian Sands).
Vatel is Miramax's big year-end attempt at a prestigious Oscar-sweeping historical epic and it comes up woefully short. Millions were obviously spent on the lavish production, but, as directed by the joyless Roland Joff, it's anything but a ravishing banquet. For all the opulence, there's a distinct overall glumness in tone, not helped by Robert Fraisse's dark, muddy photography. One longs to be swept up by all the spectacle and Machiavellian court intrigue, but this needs the masterly touch of a Visconti or Ophuls. Joff, who never should have been entrusted with anything remotely period after his laughable The Scarlet Letter, is long on earnestness but little else.
Tom Stoppard is credited with the English polish of Jeanne Labrune's original screenplay, but one wonders about the extent of his exact contribution. There's some weighty reference to Descartes, but no real wit anywhere. The elaborate firework displays, tableaux and food just sit blandly there on the screen, singularly unmagical. Indeed, Joff lingers more lovingly over the rats scurrying in the corridors than any single character's dilemma, as if to portentously--and needlessly--point out the rot beneath the finery. Ennio Morricone's droning music is like gravy out of the can, poured over everything.
Depardieu, that ever-busy but always admirable actor, does his best at instilling some humanity into the empty proceedings, but his character is really a rather boring paragon of efficient virtue. A real behind-the-scenes enabler, he barely takes any joy in the wonders he has wrought. Thurman is sadly underutilized, given nothing to do but simper prettily in her gowns and deliver seemingly endless, but not very sharp, putdowns to the ever-lascivious Roth. Nearly as odious a villain as he was in Rob Roy, Roth provides the one moment of real life here, unsuccessfully trying to seduce Thurman's Anne and practically devouring her ear in the process. Joff truly gives his shabby hand away with the lazy casting of Sands as Louis XIV. Known as the "Sun King," the most charismatic of all French sovereigns, in Sands' vacuous, preening characterization, Louis emerges as more dusk than anything else. He heads up what has to be the least scintillating royal court ever presented on film. Glover and Nathalie Cerda, Emilie Ohana and Marine Delterme, who play, respectively, Louis' Queen and his mistresses, Mmes. de Montespan and de la Valliere, are an incredibly depressing, uncharismatic lot. Murray Lachlan Young, as the king's decadent gay brother, is an unappetizing stereotype, as is his swishy coterie. As the Princess, Arielle Dombasle at least looks right and serves a modicum of visual glamour.