"Haute Cuisine" is a bonbon, not a full-course meal.
Foodies will smack their lips over many delectable shots of victuals prepared by the film's engaging protagonist, a provincial woman chosen to cook for the president of France. As a story, though, it's insubstantial -- there's conflict here, but it feels perfunctory.
The film is based on a real person, Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch, a cook from Perigord who was brought to the Elysee Palace in 1988 at the request of President Francois Mitterrand to provide the sort of food his grandmother had made.
2.5 stars = Average
Catherine Frot, Arthur Dupont, Jean d'Ormesson.
PG-13 for brief, strong language.
Recommended by famed chef Joel Robuchon, she became Mitterrand's private cook, departing in 1990. She was the first woman to work in the presidential kitchen.
Renamed Hortense Laborie for the film, she is an excellent cook who specializes in the non-fussy, homey fare that is certainly not favored by the established chefs at the palace, who are male chauvinists to the core.
The exception is Nicolas (Arthur Dupont), an affable young pastry chef who becomes her sole assistant. Hortense (Catherine Frot) knows she is good and isn't about take any guff from the boys' club in the main kitchen.
Hortense develops a friendly relationship with the president, nicely played by novelist Jean d'Ormesson, which raises various eyebrows around the palace.
There are minor obstacles to be overcome in addition to sexism, and many dishes (e.g., salmon stuffed in cabbage, St. Honore cake and just about anything made with black truffles) are discussed and prepared for our delectation. For reasons of the president's health, she is ordered by bureaucrats to lighten up the food, which doesn't please her -- or him.
Her brief and stressful time at the palace is framed with the story of her subsequent journey to Antarctica to cook for a group of extremely grateful French researchers. They're regular folks, a nice break from the crew at the palace.
Apparently her experiences in Paris were unpleasant enough to prompt her to get as far away as possible, although she's such a strong character that the reaction's surprising. To stretch out the Antarctica scenes -- it's hard to see any other reason -- Hortense is pestered by a pair of documentary makers.
If you love food, you'll probably find the movie amiable enough, and there's some interest in the behind-the-scenes portrayal of Elysee Palace life.
But Christian Vincent's direction lacks flair, and the film is finally lightweight in a way that suggests uncertainty about how to handle the material. Frot's lead performance makes up for a lot, but not quite enough.
In French with English subtitles. Opens today at the SouthSide Works Cinema.