In the introductory sequence of Christian Vincent’s “Haute Cuisine” (titled “Les Saveurs du Palais” for its French release), an Australian television crew floats towards an Antarctic exploration station to film a documentary. The viewers do not know why this station is particularly worthy of documenting, and they have little reason to care very much. Indeed, this sequence encapsulates the whole film. The viewers drift along through some beautiful landscapes, but ultimately are given little sense of purpose on their journey and leave it as untouched as when they entered the theater.
Vincent is a man who makes unremarkable films (witness the bland romantic drama “La Séparation”), and this most recent effort, which captures the travails of the former personal chef of French president François Mitterrand, does not inspire confidence that he will overcome this mediocrity. Nevertheless, he exhibits a determination to continue it with as much preciosity as possible. Like the tremendously overrated “Before Midnight,” released earlier this summer, “Haute Cuisine” aspires to an independent art-film aesthetic, full of light touches with profound reverberations about life, the universe, and everything, but succeeds only in being annoying.
The vacuity of the plot is the first and greatest sticking point, and it is aggravated by the self-indulgent affection modern filmmakers have for nonlinear narratives. Upon the revelation that the Antarctic station’s cook was once chef for the French President, the film leaps back four years to Perigord, France in a sequence that affords some truly lovely aerial views of the forests of Aquitaine. Hortense (Catherine Frot) is hurried from her home to the Palace Elysée to be the new private chef for François Mitterand. Her struggles with the main kitchen and French bureaucrats are as predictable as her meeting with the president (Jean d’Ormesson). The remainder of the film concerns itself with her tribulations during her two years in the president’s service. Her insipid struggles with dieticians and financial officers are occasionally punctuated with poorly integrated but beautifully filmed sequences of Antarctica, lest one forget the clunky, unnecessary frame story.
In this respect, “Haute Cuisine” illustrates a general truth about its genre: the action in films about servants tends to be dull. This fact is the reason that such films must have powerful character development, à la “The Remains of the Day”; otherwise, viewers are just left watching people do tedious things, which is usually what they are trying to avoid by going to the movies. “Haute Cuisine” fails to exhibit such strong character development, and so it becomes a film journal of a pleasant but not especially engaging woman doing not especially engaging things. The writers, perhaps sensing this, occasionally try to introduce conflict with various sorts of artifices, including a presidential trip to North Africa, low-fat dieting restrictions, and a stress fracture that is introduced in one scene and not mentioned for the rest of the film. Ultimately, all these efforts to jump-start audience engagement are dead ends, and viewers are left with little reason to care about Hortense’s desperate fish run to the market any more than they care about a roommate’s desperate milk run to CVS.
It must be granted that some of the cinematography for “Haute Cuisine” is strikingly beautiful, like many of this new breed of would-be art films. Shots of the food are particularly well framed and balanced, with great attention to lighting and color. Unfortunately, this command of the medium slips a bit during dialogues—it appears that Vincent can frame a steamed cabbage properly, but not the face of the President of France. Annoying as this flaw is, it is not so pervasive as to drive the viewer to distraction. Despite its faults, the cinematography is by far the best aspect of the movie.
Nevertheless, beautiful camera work cannot overcome fundamental mediocrity of content. “Haute Cuisine,” even if it is dull with beautiful visuals, is still dull. If you are one of the select few whose attention is held rapt by well-lit pictures of fruit tarts, this movie was made for you; otherwise, your time is best spent elsewhere.