“Haute Cuisine,” the 2012 French film opening today, has two things going for it: the charming Catherine Frot, last seen by American viewers as the put-upon wife in “The Dinner Game;” and an impressive amount of food porn, including some very complicated and classic French dishes. It has many other things going against it, however.
Titled “Les saveurs du Palais” in France, “Haute Cuisine” tells a fictionalized version of a real life event. After many years of fancy meals, President FranÁois Mitterrand hired a middle-aged woman from the countryside to be his personal chef. He was looking for someone to make the kind of food his grandmother made.
While watching the film, what comes to mind is how Hollywood would take such a story and possibly spin it into comedy, or with someone like Meryl Streep in the role — our go-to chef-actress if one checks out her recent resume — they’d up the drama. What we get instead is something dull in the middle, a souffl’ that looks great just as it comes out of the oven, but then promptly deflates (I’m restricting my diet to one food metaphor this review).
Hortense Laborie (Ms. Frot) has a successful farm in the countryside, looks after her ailing uncle, and seems happy, but out of nowhere one morning, government officials turn up and whisk her away to …lys’e Palace where the President resides. She has been requested to cook for the President, and many of the opening scenes involve confusing protocol, long, winding corridors, and copper pans that go back to the days of Louis XIV.
There’s sexism in the main kitchen, as the experienced chefs take umbrage at this housewife coming in to take their jobs. There are bean counters that can’t understand why she’d spend more than is necessary just to get better ingredients. And — worst of all! — her work gets curtailed by dietitians who claim her traditional foods contain too much fat.
With all the chaos, Hortense just shrugs and deals with it. You don’t argue with the President and his advisors. And she can go home any time. Nothing’s really at stake. And that’s the fault with the film. It keeps throwing crises at us that fizzle out on contact. If the script by Etienne Comar could have just kept to the relationship between the President (Jean D’Ormesson) and Hortense — they share some nice late night moments in the kitchen where she makes him truffles on toast — then it could have been a pleasant study of two people connecting over food. But the President only pops by occasionally — he is the leader of France, after all, and he has things to do.
The film also cuts back and forth between Hortense’s life post-President, when she moves to Antarctica to cook for all the scientists on a base. There’s a strangely always-annoyed, Australian documentary filmmaker following Hortense around on her last day. These scenes serve to let us know that Hortense was appreciated, after the fraught relations in France. And they let us know, over and over again.
Ms. Frot is lovely to watch, and you may want to make a snack after watching the film. But the real-life tale of Dani’le Mazet-Delpeuch — there are some interviews kicking around on the ‘net — is so much more interesting than anything in “Haute Cuisine” — you might be better served reading about her instead.
Starring: Catherine Frot, Arthur Dupont, Jean D’Ormesson
Length: 95 minutes
Rating:PG-13 for language
Playing at: Riviera