10 November 2013

Haute Cuisine

This is a surprisingly understated movie, in many ways. Like many foodie films, it's true raison d'être is arguably the incredible footage of delicious meals prepared by the main character, loving shots of pastry-encased meats and roulades, or a mouth-watering open-faced truffle sandwich. But, barring cinematic masterpieces like Tampopo or Like Water for Chocolate, many of these culinary-oriented films justify that footage with a rather clunking story about a hard-luck chef trying to save the family business, or neglected woman whose cooking brings passion back to her life. Haute Cuisine could very easily have gone in that direction, but it pulls short, and in the process, runs the risk of minimizing narrative satisfaction altogether. There are two threads -- or rather, settings -- in the film. One is the Presidential Palace, where Hortense, the main character, is put in charge of the President's private kitchen. The other is Antarctica, where, 4 years later, she is preparing her final meal as head of the cafeteria before returning to France. A documentary filmmaker, who I think was want to be from Australia, but whose accent didn't seem to be, is trying to get footage of Hortense, who remains elusive. I'm not sure if this is a clever reference to the film's refusal to tell an over-simplified tale, or a half-baked attempt to explain the story's narration. I prefer to think the former, but that might be giving the movie too much credit.

In any case, the Antarctica scenes are pleasant, carousing moments of community. The French scenes are full of jealousy, animosity, and sexism, leavened with the pleasures of a budding friendship between the fellow private kitchen team, and occasional chats with the President himself, a great adorer of traditional French food. Budget cuts, dietary restrictions, and a nasty Main Kitchen team ultimately make the long hours and grueling work at the Private Kitchen head less pleasure than frustration, and that's that. Hortense's more personal struggles--particularly with the sexism that is constantly rearing its ugly head--are alluded to but left unexplored, which I think was the perfect way to make their existence clear but avoid trivializing them. I found myself enjoying the film's subtlety as much as I relished its gorgeous images of food. It's a quiet film, but a tasty one.

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