Monday, September 16, 2013

Haute Cuisine: Mitterrand’s Private Chef

The irony was hard to miss when France’s newly elected Socialist president hired a private chef to preside over his freshly re-opened personal kitchen in the Élysée Palace, unless you were either Mitterand or the new chef.  Irony will have not have a place on the menu for Hortense Laborie, but she will face plenty of turf fighting and bureaucratic haggling in Christian Vincent’s Haute Cuisine (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Laborie is rather stunned when she is recruited from relative obscurity to Périgord to cook for the unnamed President transparently based on François Mitterrand.  Initially, the presidential advisors, such as her nominal supervisor David Azoulay, quite like having the classy Laborie around the Palace.  However, the “Big Kitchen” bitterly resents her presence, especially since she receives all the small prestigious assignments, leaving them with the high volume, mass produced meals.  Unfortunately, when a political shake-up forces out Azoulay, he is replaced by a crass bean-counter.  Concerned about the cost of the small kitchen and the President’s rising cholesterol, he starts micro-managing Laborie’s menus, which does not sit well with her.

Haute Cuisine is a pleasant enough film, offering up plenty of savory looking regional French dishes.  Food necessarily plays a central role in the film, but there is a deceptive simplicity to many of Laborie’s meals that do not lend themselves to the over-the-top cinematic treatment of other vicarious food films.

Based on the real life Danièle Delpeuch, Catherine Frot portrays Laborie with intelligence, elegance, and backbone.  She is clearly a force to be reckoned with.  Although Jean d’Ormesson is a poor likeness for Mitterrand, his President’s world weary graciousness works perfectly within the film’s dramatic context.  Yet, even though the film employs Laborie’s year-long stint at an Antarctic research base (again, true story) as an intriguing framing device, the overall arc of the film is oddly flat.  In fact, the big turning point comes and goes before viewers even realize it.

Still, for Francophiles, Haute Cuisine delivers a potent shot of Frenchness.  For those who enjoy the air of sophistication more than the grubby business of plot points and conflicts, it is your best bet this week.  Earning a restrained recommended more for connoisseurs of French culture rather than food movie junkies, Haute Cuisine opens this Friday (9/20) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.