“Vatel,” a no-expense-spared costumer, is further proof that all the money and technical expertise in the world are no substitutes for a good screenplay and creative direction. Millions of francs have been poured into this Gaumont English-language spectacle, which was chosen to open the 53rd Cannes Film Festival, but wit, style and emotional involvement are notable by their absence. For a film that supposedly celebrates the sensual things in life, particularly some spectacular culinary masterworks, “Vatel” is a consistently remote experience, and faces an uphill battle in most territories.
Paradoxically, the subject would probably have fared better in the U.S. and other key markets if it were a French-language production by a director of the caliber of Patrice Leconte, whose “Ridicule” was a far more entertaining take on a roughly similar theme.
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The year is 1671 and the Sun King, Louis XIV (Julian Sands) rules at Versailles. Via his smarmy lieutenant, the Marquis de Lauzun (Tim Roth), the king announces his intention to spend three days at the country chateau of the ailing, gout-ridden Prince de Conde (Julian Glover). The prince, deep in debt and pitifully anxious to be assigned to lead the French army in the event of expected war with Holland, is determined to make the monarch and his court welcome and instructs his loyal steward, Francois Vatel (Gerard Depardieu), to handle the arrangements.
Vatel, who has dragged himself up from an impoverished and dubious background in the slums and brothels of Paris, is the kind of entrepreneur the most extravagant Hollywood showman would envy. A combination chef, event director and entertainer, Vatel throws himself into the business of entertaining the king, his obnoxious gay brother, Philippe d’Orleans (Murray Lachlan Young), the queen, assorted ladies in waiting and hangers-on with a variety of sumptuous banquets and theatrical events. Endlessly inventive, he creates Chantilly cream when the eggs destined for custard are found to be addled, and, when glass lamps for a nighttime banquet are delivered smashed beyond repair he improvises with hollowed-out melons, claiming the idea came from the Indies. But he finds time to catch the eye of beauteous courtesan Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman), who is about to become the king’s latest conquest and who is also lusted after by de Lauzun.
While juggling all these balls in the air, the essentially decent and kindly Vatel also finds time to save a little boy from the lecherous d’Orleans and to prevent the killing of Anne’s pet canaries (de Conde’s doctor, played by Richard Griffiths, considers hearts torn from living birds a cure for his master’s gout). Vatel is, indeed, a paragon of virtue, but during the course of the royal visit he makes many important enemies.
This ultimately downbeat tale, though most lavishly designed and choreographed, is otherwise a disappointment in almost every respect. Helmer Roland Joffe’s fussy, uninvolving direction consistently fails to extract the required emotional connections, and Robert Fraisse’s surprisingly unattractive widescreen lensing fails to make the succulent banquets and a gallery of beautiful actresses look attractive.
There is also a rather disquieting homophobic element to the film, with the king’s brother and his entourage presented as voracious and vicious gays. When thwarted in his attempt to seduce the little boy, Monsieur (as the prince likes to be called) invites Vatel to his bed — hardly a likely compromise under the circumstances.
The decision to film in English was evidently a financial one, but it backfires in that the lead character, though efficiently played by Depardieu, is the only principal role saddled with a (thick) French accent. The rest, including Thurman, deliver their lines in beautifully modulated English, so that Depardieu stands out from the rest for all the wrong reasons. In the midst of the often chaotic goings-on, Roth gives the standout performance, although his waspishly malevolent marquis is a stock character.
Tom Stoppard’s English adaptation of Jeanne Labrune’s French-language screenplay is workmanlike but uninspired. And Ennio Morricone’s generally conventional music score does not succeed in lifting the film during its frequent flat patches.
Preceding “Vatel” in the Cannes opening program was “De L’Origine du XXIe Siecle” (The Origin of the 21st Century), a 17-minute video short by Jean-Luc Godard. A montage of images and sounds from the 20th century (the French dialogue track untranslated by the festival), pic is a typically all-over-the-place latter-day Godard mixture that includes famous images (Jean Seberg in the director’s “Breathless,” for example) among a riot of disconnected imagery, mostly depicting the horrors and violence of the 1900s. Technically rough, this item, with its cheerfully irreverent and combative approach, could crop up as a fest filler at many events in the months to come.