“Watching Haute Cuisine, you have an undeniable feeling that there was a lot of untapped potential.”
by Ken B.
There’s a scene in Haute Cuisine that sees Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot), French President François Mitterand’s head private chef, and a few other cooks trying a prospective dessert cooked in the chaotic main kitchen. They conclude that while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the dish, it has no personality and looks like it could have been made by anyone. This sequence unknowingly describes the whole movie – there’s nothing awful about it, and there are things to admire, but it leaves no impression.
The story itself revolves around Laborie, who is appointed to fill the position of the head of the private kitchen after exchanging business cards with a staff member. Her sous chef is pastry expert Nicolas Bauvois (Arthur Dupont). At 1:15 every day, they are expected to have a lunch to bring up to Mitterand (Jean d’Ormesson) and however many others will be joining him. Each meal’s menu is approved by the president’s staff, but the man himself also has ideas for how things should go. In a lengthy discussion with Hortense, Mitterand expresses a desire for more traditional, home-cooked meals. Hortense agrees, and subsequently begins using ingredients from farms and shops she’s used in the past, instead of the nameless stockpiles in-house. The bulk of the remainder of the film focuses on how she manages the kitchen in light of many events and roadblocks that arise over her time at the Élysée Palace.
An odd thing that the movie does is cut between this narrative and a “framing” device set four years later, where Hortense cooks for French scientists and the Antarctic and is pursued by Australian journalists over her previous job. I put “framing” in quote marks because I’m not exactly sure how to describe them – it’s never used as a jumping-off point to the main storyline, and often cuts back-and-forth with little rhyme or reason, never truly showing a purpose until the last scene of the film.
Watching Haute Cuisine, you have an undeniable feeling that there was a lot of untapped potential. There are certainly the elements required to make a good film. We’ll start with the acting. Catherine Frot gives a charming and all-around solid performance in the lead role, based off the real life accounts of Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch. Frot works well with her cast members, like French writer Jean d’Ormesson as Mitterand. Arthur Dupont, as Nicolas, the younger pastry chef, rounds out the main cast in a satisfactory but unmemorable showing. The pacing is alright, as well. 90 minutes is just the right amount of time to handle a story like this. The camera work, led by director Christian Vincent and DP Laurent Dailland, is pleasing, highlighting everything from the preparation of food, to the varying exteriors, to the bright stoic features of the president’s office.
Alright, now we’ve run down some major qualities, and everything seems OK. So what really went wrong? The answer lies in the film’s impact on the viewer, in that there isn’t any. It’s understandable that a movie like this would aim to be a light dramedy, but even something like that should leave some sort of feeling afterwards. Haute Cuisine doesn’t really do anything for you. It starts. Things happen. The credits roll. And that’s all there is to it – what’s left in the end is a state of indifference with hints of the positives within that never really were given a chance to truly shine.
If there was ever a movie that seems like it would be perfect for the Food Network, this is it – an inoffensive, shorter film with a good number of mildly interesting scenes of various dishes being prepared and served. That’s about as far as it can go. This is a movie that tinkers with components that could have very well equaled success, but the payoff never occurs. Most movies, good or bad, influence your day, in the way that it is improved or worsened by whatever you watched. Haute Cuisine, on the other hand, does absolutely nothing in either direction. There really isn’t much else to be said about that.
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