Film Review: Haute Cuisine

Delicious in every way: a must for foodies, but also for anyone who wants to see beautiful work done on the screen, presented in the most prideful way.

In the small but select category of food-centric films—Babette’s Feast, Big Night, Eat Drink Man Woman—you can now add Haute Cuisine, to which this viewer is fully prepared to give pride of place. Writer-director Christian Vincent’s film is a marvelously diverting concoction, concerning itself with what happened when a woman, Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot)—airily based on the real-life character of Daniele Delpeuch—became personal chef to French President François Mitterand and found herself in the fraught, traditionally all-male enclave of the kitchens in Paris’ lofty Elysée Palace.

A fiercely smart, no-nonsense type with a deep love for her métier—the kind of cozy home cooking Mitterand loved when prepared in his childhood by his grandmother—Hortense finds herself having to deal with the undisguised contempt of her poisonously jealous, testosterone-heavy fellow cooks (who dub her “Madame DuBarry”), as well as the economic and dietary strictures placed upon her by officious authorities concerned with the palace budget, as well as the President’s health. A real artist in her field, she refuses to compromise both her cooking and the kinds of rare and pure ingredients which make up the best France has to offer from its farms and fields.

Those above-mentioned conflicts make up the gist of the drama here, and if it all sounds a little inconsequential, think again. However slight in plot and actual details about Hortense’s personal life the film may be, for me it’s far preferable to countless exposition-laden rom-coms and dramas which rarely if ever even focus on the actual jobs of their protagonists. How many writers in movies do we never see really doing any writing, or, for that matter, architects, lawyers and miscellaneous entrepreneurs doing their respective thing? Indeed, it’s quite bizarre that, after more than a century since the medium was invented, filmmakers seem to still need to be reminded that people doing actual work can not only be intellectually stimulating, but damned photogenic as well.

Vincent, who must be a profound gourmand at least, needs no such reminding, and his movie is a mouth-watering orgy of preparation and presentation of dishes that ravish the eyes and stoke the appetite. I confess to not being particularly handy in the kitchen or addicted to TV cooking shows, but I would have gladly watched Hortense whipping up her kitchen magic for a small eternity, so incisively edited and gorgeously photographed are these sequences. The intense pride and tenacity which fuel Hortense easily come off as ten times more thrilling than all the fiery explosions and car chases that are fast becoming cinema’s sole expression of excitement. Laurent Dailland’s cinematography is a ravishment—turning Hortense’s private kitchen into a gleaming, stainless-steel temple—and Gabriel Yared has contributed a particularly lovely, apt music score.

Frot is simply marvelous, the kind of immediate, take-control, “I dare you to take your eyes off me” actress that Bette Davis and her Gallic counterpart, Jeanne Moreau, were in their heyday. Imperturbably chic with her entwined pearl necklace as she bustles about her ovens, her fecund energy and super-quick wit are delectable. She has impeccable timing, as does Vincent, who directs with a fine, crisp, no-nonsense manner that spotlights such felicities as Hortense’s teasing relationship with her cute, young patissier (Arthur Dupont), as well as the molten force with which she faces down her amusingly contemptuous, chief naysayer of a rotund head chef (Brice Fournier).

Mitterand is played by a non-actor, the eminent French intellectual Jean d’Ormesson, who has an aristocratic refinement and real dignity, if somewhat lacking in real histrionic props. He and Frot have but a handful of quiet scenes together, and while moving, they definitely would have played stronger with a stronger actor. This is somewhat made up for by Vincent’s decision to intercut a storyline about Hortense working in Antarctica after her Mitterand stint, cooking for a crew of decidedly more earthy, blue-collar types, but with no less precision and devotion. The cross-cutting between the two plots might have been annoying, but Vincent does it with skill, and although you barely see any more of enigmatic Hortense’s real inner nature, the greater relaxation and authority she is able to display in the Arctic sequences enrich this enchanting film about her.