Haute Cuisine (2012) / Comedy-Drama
aka Les Saveurs du Palais
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Catherine Frot, Arthur DuPont, Jean d'Ormesson, Hippolyte Girardot, Jean-Marc Roulot, Philippe Uchan, Laurent Poltrenaux, Herve Pierre, Brice Fournier, Roch Lelbovici, Thomas Chabrol, Arly Jover
Director: Christian Vincent
Screenplay: Etienne Comar, Christian Vincent
Review published January 1, 2014
Haute Cuisine isn't a true story exactly, but it is based on real people (Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch, the real-life woman the lead character resembles, provides the story the screenplay is based on, though her experience happened a few years earlier than this movie's depiction). Set mostly in the mid-1990's, Catherine Frot (The Dinner Game) stars as chef Hortense Laborie, who is sought out for a valued position as the personal chef for Francois Mitterrand (d'Ormesson), the president of France, who is tired of the elaborate cuisine served by the kitchen and desires food as he used to enjoy from his youth. Her new domain is a quaint kitchen in the Elysee Palace, where she applies her talent for simple-yet-elegant dishes to the delight of the president himself. However, not all is a cinch for Hortense, as the main kitchen of the palace sees her as a rival, and the president's ailing health requires a near bureaucracy of scrutiny from dieticians who insist on major restricitons to his food intake that greatly limits her ability to make some of the world's best dishes.
Haute Cuisine is a film that I tend to label in the "food porn" category, as many of the delights of watching it come not through the story or characterizations so much as seeing all of the sumptuous dishes being prepared in front of our eyes. Lots of richly displayed cuisine dances across the screen -- duck dishes, exotic sauces, decadent creams, and lots of truffles -- as we hear about various local regions of France that have all manner of practices for livestock and gardening that makes good dishes among the world's very best in flavor, or so Hortense seems to think. It's a film by foodies for foodies; if you watch the Food Network with no intention or knowledge of making any of the dishes presented, you're probably in the right demographic.
There isn't much of a plot outside of one that bookends the film, which is that of an Australian journalist and documentarian (Jover, Blade) who travels to Antarctica to do an expose on the French research facility there, only to get sidetracked by a desire to interview Hortense, the facility's cook, after learning about her experience as President Mitterrand's personal chef. Most of the film is a flashback to Hortense's time in Paris, occasionally interrupted by a mostly useless scene in Antarctica.
Catherine Frot is perhaps the best part of the film, commanding in her role as the demanding and prideful chef who seems to have to traverse among an all-male world of cooks and diners alike. We know only bits and pieces about Hortense's past, all having to do with cooking, and her passion for her dishes is so all-encompassing, perhaps it is all she lives for. Frot shows that passion in her face, and though I don't know cooking well enough to state whether the actress is accurately depicting how things are done in the kitchen, it sure looks like she does from her determined and comfortable demeanor.
It's listed as a comedy, but it isn't one full of great laughs, so temper expectations to have anything but a few contented smiles by the time it's all over. While the film itself isn't particularly deep or substantial, it is pleasant and well presented, moving along at a decent clip and not outstaying its welcome. The direction is glossy but effective, particularly in the way the cinematography, which is strikingly beautiful at times, works in unison with the lush musical score. As with most gourmet dinners, presentation is a big part of the appeal, and even if Haute Cuisine is more of a dessert than a main course as a film, it goes down delightfully easy. Be sure not to watch this before eating or you won't be able to hear the film beyond the persistent growl of your stomach.
©2014 Vince Leo