Make sure you eat before seeing French kitchen drama Haute Cuisine otherwise you will be drooling like the Alien, so enticing is the parade of French delicacies on display here. In fact, this film is closer to a cooking programme than a traditional drama and may not appeal to those who regard spending hours in the kitchen as a tedious waste of time.
Catherine Frot plays a renowned French regional chef Hortense Laborie, a character based on real-life regional cooking pioneer Daniele Delpeuch. We first meet Hortense as the tetchy, aloof new chef on a French Antarctic base. Not long before this post she was personal chef to the French president (as Delpeuch was to Francois Mitterrand) and a documentary crew visiting the base want to know what the hell she is doing in Antarctica.
The film answers this question in a vague and undramatic manner but that’s not its main concern as Haute Cuisine is really a love letter to French cooking. Most of the film involves chef Hortense rhapsodising over the wonders of French cuisine and the meals her grandma taught her. The film captures the tense, frenzied activity in the kitchen as she obsessively crafts meals for the President while holding an unyielding fidelity to the techniques she learned long ago. Unusually, this film is so full of French cooking terms that most of the subtitles are still in French. Foodies will be mesmerised by Hortense’ passion for food and her intricate descriptions of French fare. Animal activists, however, may bristle at her unapologetic use of foie groi, a delicacy created by force-feeding a duck.
Aside from the cooking marathon, the film provides an amusing insight into the rigid, almost regal etiquette at the French President’s home the Élysée Palace. There, Hortense encounters a power structure with which she is destined to grate. As the President’s personal chef and apparently the only woman on the cooking staff, Hortense is forced to battle with the main kitchen’s misogynist head chef as well as palace bureaucracy and protocol Nazis. Her fight against the system generally earns our sympathies but some of the palace hierarchy’s objections to her irascible behaviour and her tendency to feed the ageing president high cholesterol food, are completely justified. She and her cooking do, however, earn the affections of the President (Jean d’Ormesson) and there’s a suggestion of an extracurricular relationship between them although the film is annoyingly ambiguous about this.
Also irritating is the needless framing device of the supposedly Australian documentary crew filming Hortense’s every move around the Antarctic base. The film could easily have done without this device as it’s a distraction for local audiences to have characters described as Australian who clearly speak with British accents.
This is a charming, at times amusing and occasionally emotional film but its soufflé light plot and salivating obsession with truffles and salmon-stuffed cabbage won’t satisfy all audiences.
Nick’s rating: Three stars.
Director(s): Christian Vincent.
Release date: 28th Apr 2013
Running time: 95 mins.
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