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HAUTE CUISINE (LES SAVEURS DU PALAIS)
DIRECTOR: Christian Vincent
CAST: Catherine Frot, Jean d’Ormesson, Arthur Dupont
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
Warning: this film should not be watched on an empty stomach.
In this tale of the humouring of an ageing president’s gastronomic whims, the viewer is regaled with a long succession of scenes in which recipes are discussed in loving detail and meals are prepared with the devotion of a sacrament.
Haute Cuisine is light on plot, long on flavour and deliciously French. It slides down a treat (reviewers will draw heavily on their stock of culinary metaphors), and although for a comedy it provides few out-and-out laughs, its engaging central character and constant good humour, not to mention the mouth-watering visuals, should attract a steady stream of willing customers to theatres and nearby restaurants.
The story is based on the real-life case of Danièle Delpeuch, a modest provincial chef and restaurant owner who in the late 1980s was summoned by President François Mitterrand to be his personal cook at his official residence, the Elysée Palace.
Danièle becomes Hortense (Frot), and Mitterrand becomes the president, played by the 87-year-old non-actor d’Ormesson, better known as a writer and journalist (in the latter role, he was for many years one of Mitterrand’s fiercest adversaries – an irony older French filmgoers will savour).
The president has developed a hankering for the traditional regional cuisine he knew in his youth, and decides that Hortense is just the woman he needs to provide him with “the best of France”.
Hortense’s relations with the president and with Nicolas, the young pastry cook designated as her assistant (Dupont), are non-conflictual, and such drama as there is derives from the resistance she encounters among the old guard in the Elysée kitchens and the stuffy presidential bureaucracy.
Further complications arise when health problems require the president to be put on a diet that rules out sauces, spices and other essential pleasures of life.
Director Christian Vincent and his co-writer (and producer) Etienne Comar cannily show up the transgressive nature of Hortense’s presence as a woman in a man’s world (haute cuisine is very much a male preserve) and a rustic in the urban-intellectual world of high politics, but choose not to exploit it for easy gags, the keynote being light badinage.
The Elysée story – lent some authenticity by being partly shot in the palace itself – is framed and punctuated by sequences set 13 000km away, in Antarctica, where Danièle/Hortense sought refuge some years later as chief cook for a scientific expedition.
Here, too, the dramatic tension is minimal, the filmmakers’ interest residing in the contrast between the two worlds. The film is none the worse for that, though. It owes Frot a massive debt for engaging our sympathy, if not our passionate involvement. – Hollywood Reporter
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