A femme Gallic country cook is elevated to the rank of the president’s personal chef in scribe-helmer Christian Vincent’s “Haute Cuisine,” an airy comedy-drama whose preparation, with its conspicuous lack of Hollywood-style conflict and catharsis, is particularly French. Catherine Frot, as close to a French Meryl Streep as creme brulee is to crema catalana, is perfect as the no-nonsense lead, and her appealing perf smooths over the pic’s somewhat unfocused screenplay. “Cuisine” sated nearly 1 million local viewers, and will also appeal to delicate foreign palettes, including Stateside, where the Weinsteins have scooped up rights.
Never quite outright food porn, a la “Babette’s Feast” or “Eat Drink Man Woman,” Vincent’s latest does contain its fair share of beautifully prepared foodstuffs, even if, entirely in keeping with French tastes, it’s talking about food, rather than preparing or eating it, that the characters seem to savor most.
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Dramatically somewhat lightweight, yet never really a comedy, this tonally peculiar concoction was inspired by the true story of Daniele Delpeuch, who was plucked from relative obscurity by then-president Francois Mitterand to be his personal chef. She was the first woman to, er, man the stoves at the Elysee Palace, the French president’s residence, which ruffled more than a few feathers in the Parisian culinary establishment.
But helmer and co-scribe Vincent starts his story on the other side of the world, in Antarctica, where Delpeuch’s fictional alter ego, Hortense Laborie (Frot), has taken a cooking job after her presidential adventure (just like Delpeuch, who clearly wanted a change of scenery). Though this material, to which the main narrative occasionally returns, sheds a little light on Hortense’s complex and tenacious character, it’s mostly an awkward framing device that doesn’t amount to much more than exotic filler in an already lean 95-minute film. The cold-colored scenes here are also riddled with inconsistent elements, such as two documakers (Arly Jover, Joe Sheridan) who supposedly hail from Australia but don’t sound remotely like it, and a large group of “friends” with whom Hortense seems to be spending no time.
The flashbacks to her time at the Elysee Palace, four years earlier, are clearly the meat of the story. From the moment of Hortense’s arrival, when she’s assigned only a young and handsome patissier, Nicolas (Arthur Dupont), as an aide, she’s in direct competition with the industrious main kitchen, headed by crabby chef Pascal Lepiq (Brice Fournier). Nicolas thinks Hortense has stolen the most interesting cooking opportunity: preparing the meals of the president (Jean d’Ormesson). But a true battle of wills fails to materialize; also missing, thankfully, is a romantic subplot.
Without a three-act structure and clear character arcs, “Haute Cuisine” advances with a mix of small human dramas and culinary catastrophes that are often resolved in a scene or two, giving the film the air of a particularly well-appointed TV series that could be extended ad infinitum, the Antarctica scenes notwithstanding.
Frot engagingly carries the proceedings, and Vincent and co-scribe Etienne Comar come up with enough trivia regarding Elysee etiquette and French cuisine to keep auds entertained. Gallic viewers will also appreciate the casting of d’Ormesson, a celebrity intellectual, as the president, and although he’s not an actor, he’s got the right gravitas for his pivotal supporting role.
Partially shot in the actual Elysee during one of Sarkozy’s state visits abroad, the pic has an authentic, classy air that’s further reinforced by a busy classical score. The rest of the tech package is also fluid, including the countless beautifully prepared dishes. The “saveurs” of the original title are “flavors” or “taste,” and there’s a clever pun in the use of “palais,” which means both “palace” and “palate.”