Haute Cuisine (Les Saveurs du Palais): Film Review

Light badinage favored over gags in sympathetic film for foodies    

Catherine Frot shines in Christian Vincent's film for foodies in which haute cuisine meets politics in Paris and spartan life in the wastes of Antarctica

Warning: this film should not be watched on an empty stomach. In this tale of the humoring of an aging president's gastronomic whims, the spectator 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 flavor 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 humor, 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 (Catherine Frot) and Mitterrand becomes the President, played by the 87-year-old non-actor Jean 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 savor). The President has developed a hankering for the traditional regional cuisine he knew in his youth and decided 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 her assistant (Arthur 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 point 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 some 8,000 miles 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.

Production companies: Armada Films, Vendôme Production, France 2 Cinema, Wild Bunch 

Cast: Catherine Frot, Jean d'Ormesson, Arthur Dupont, Hippolyte Girardot, Arly Jover, Joe Sheridan

Director: Christian Vincent

Writers: Etienne Comar, Christian Vincent, based on the life of Daniéle Mazet-Delpeuch  

Photography: Laurent Dailland

Producers: Etienne Comar, Philippe Rousselet

Production design: Patrick Durand

Editor: Monica Coleman

Music: Gabriel Yared 

Sales: Wild Bunch International 

No rating, 95 minutes