I’m not a person who cares about cooking shows or who spends a ton of time watching The Food Network. But if you do then I can imagine that you will find a lot to like in the new French film “Haute Cuisine”. But you don’t have to be a food aficionado to find enjoyment in director Christian Vincent’s tasty concoction. There’s a lot to like despite its few structural issues that ultimately keep it from being even better than it is.
“Haute Cuisine” is loosely based on the true story of Danièle Delpeuch and her surprise appointment as private chef to French President François Mitterrand. Here the lead character is Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot), a well regarded chef living on the French countryside. She is brought to Paris where she reluctantly accepts the President’s appointment as his private chef. Once there Hortense faces a variety of obstacles including the male-dominated main kitchen, overly concerned Presidential staffers, and a ridiculous level of formality.
We are told her story through a bit of fractured storytelling. The movie starts with Hortense preparing her last meal of sorts for the workers at a French Research facility in Antarctica. A snoopy Australian reporter learns that she was once the private chef to the French president. Believing there must be a scandalous reason for her move from luxury and prominence to austerity and isolation, the reporter begins seeking out the story which we are told via flashbacks.
Hortense is a confident and spunky woman. She takes her cooking seriously whether at a remote station or the royal palace. Back in Paris this quickly annoys some people yet endears her to others. As the flashbacks started I remember fearing that the movie was about to fall into a familiar, overused formula. Actually it never does. Hortense never becomes one of those ‘fight the system’ comic characters that we get in a lot of American movies. She’s very different than that and she maintains a sympathetic and relatable personality through the entire picture.
Another plus is that the film doesn’t fall into the customary biopic trappings. It’s certainly based on a true story, but it clearly wants you to know it is its own story. Even the character’s name changes separate it and helps free it from the constraints that strict biographical movies are held by. I really liked that.
But without a doubt the film’s greatest strength is found in Catherine Frot. She is simply fabulous and gives one of my favorite performances of the year. In one scene she has her character commanding the kitchen. In the next scene we see her shuttering under the pressures of her new responsibilities. Frot easily sells it all through her genuine and measured performance.
Unfortunately “Haute Cuisine” does have a few blemishes that I just couldn’t give passes to. First, the storytelling is a bit clunky specifically in the opening and ending of the flashback story. She arrives in Paris and is more or less tossed into her new position with very little explanation or buildup. That’s not a big deal because the movie is focused on a specific time frame. But I did find it a bit jarring. The wrapup of the flashback story was somewhat worse. It basically just ends with several questions up in the air and a couple of character loose ends. The film also features A LOT of gastronomic lingo that die-hard food fans will probably love. And I do mean A LOT! I often had no clue what they were talking about which was a little frustrating.
Aside from those gripes “Haute Cuisine” really worked for me. And while the flashback conclusion may have left me wanting more, the film’s main ending was fantastic and left me completely satisfied. This is a film full of charm, a touch of humor, and one great performance from Catherine Frot. It may not be saying anything big or provocative, but it certainly accomplishes what it sets out to do.