Though it preemed June 24 at the New York Food Film Festival, “Florent: Queen of the Meat Market” has little to do with food. Rather, David Sigal’s docu is a paean to French expat and gay activist Florent Morellet and the restaurant he established in Gotham’s decidedly unglamorous Meatpacking District. A unique haven defined not by exclusivity but by its wholehearted embrace of diversity, Florent’s became a fabled hangout for locals, hookers, families, celebrities, performance artists, club boys and blue-haired old ladies. Exuberant pic will wow gay markets but could expand further, Morellet’s appeal being as broad-based as his clientele.
When Sigal started shooting in January 2008, little did he imagine he would be chronicling the last days of a 25-year-old Greenwich Village institution. Florent’s forced closure (caused by an astronomical rent increase) lends a nostalgic conclusiveness to the anecdotes offered by those who frequented the venue, drawn to the warm informality of Morellet and his enlightened wait staff throughout its quarter-century history. (Morellet’s ingenious five-week countdown to eviction, each week dedicated to one of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, also supplies Sigal with a perfect story arc.)
Serving customers 24/7 at cheap prices, the welcoming Gansevoort Street bistro quickly became a neighborhood fixture after its 1985 opening, garnering publicity and rave reviews that jeopardized the eatery’s casual, offbeat atmosphere. Longtime staffers recall Morellet’s various stratagems to discourage yuppie patrons and ensure that regulars would not be displaced by affluent trend-followers.
Not that Florent’s lacked beautiful people. Sigal taps Julianne Moore to talk about her first visit, when she ducked in for a costume change and was instantly smitten. Isaac Mizrahi likens the experience of going into Florent’s to the surreal feeling of entering a dream. As one staffer remarks, where else would Police Commissioner Ray Kelly be addressed by his waiter as “honey?” Christo and Jeanne-Claude tout the restaurant’s artwork (detailed maps of imaginary lands), while longtime friend Diane von Furstenberg applauds Morellet’s affable activism.
Community organizers recount how, when developers sought to tear down the meat market’s distinctive if inelegant architecture, Morellet led an improbable but successful crusade to have it granted landmark status. But it was the AIDS crisis that truly galvanized Morellet, who poured the same impassioned energy into fighting the pandemic that he brought to running his chowhouse. When he discovered that he himself was HIV-positive, he posted his T-count on the menu board, alongside the witticism du jour. Sigal includes homemovie footage of Morellet beamingly leading the 2006 Gay Pride Parade.
Sigal understandably emphasizes the visually flamboyant, such as Morellet’s penchant for dressing up like Marie Antoinette on Bastille Day, or the sight of outrageous performance artists like Dirty Martini, Penny Arcade, Murray Hill or the Dueling Bankheads entertaining diners from tables or countertops.