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With: Catherine Frot, Jean d'Ormesson, Arthur Dupont, Hippolyte Girardot, Arly Jover, Joe Sheridan
Written by: Etienne Comar, Christian Vincent, based on the life of DaniŽle Mazet-Delpeuch
Directed by: Christian Vincent
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 95
Date: 09/27/2013

Haute Cuisine (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

A Girl in Truffles

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sadly, food movies have recently taken on the unfortunate nickname of "food porn." I guess there's a correlation. Viewers watch something with carnal desire, but only through the pleasures of sight and sound... smell, touch, and taste are denied. But "porn" is often devoid of romance and poetry, while food movies delve headfirst into these things. And so I reject the term "food porn" and will stick to the simple "food movies."

Christian Vincent's Haute Cuisine is our latest "food movie" and while it's not one of the better ones I've seen, it's far from the worst. It gets the food part right, even if the character parts don't go very deep. It tells the true story of Danièle Delpeuch, a self-trained cook with her own farm who, in 1988, was suddenly summoned to Paris to become the president's personal chef.

Here she is known as Hortense Laborie, and played by the lovely Catherine Frot (Mon oncle d'Amérique, The Dinner Game, The Trilogy). She balks at the job offer, since she has a farm to tend to, but it is not an offer easily refused. She instantly clashes with the "regular kitchen," which is in charge of most of the year's normal meals, whereas Hortense is only in charge of the president's special meals.

She begins making pate, stuffed cabbages, sauces and delectable deserts, but runs into more trouble. She doesn't quite know what to make of her new job, though. She never knows if the president likes his food. Finally she gets a meeting with him, and they talk for a long time about old recipes and old-fashioned cooking, "the best of France," while aides nervously check their schedules and pace outside the door.

Other problems arise. The budget must be tightened, the president's health must be taken into consideration. Hortense tends to break the rules outlined for her about working in the presidential mansion. She rubs others the wrong way, except for her talented young sous chef, Nicolas (Arthur Dupont), with whom she has a warm rapport.

The movie is told in flashback as Hortense finishes up a year working in Antarctica, cooking for a group of scientists. The movie sometimes cuts back to these sequences, and because they are not very visually distinct, they can be confusing. But it's all to underline Hortense's lifelong quest for great truffles.

To tell the truth, I'm delighted that Hortense's trials and tribulations were of the everyday variety and nothing extraordinary. It keeps the movie feeling low-key and saves time for food preparation and savoring. Like any good movie should, Haute Cuisine provides wonderful texture, color, and shape to all the food. It's as satisfying to see as any big budget visual effects, or any pretty girl in a bikini.

Director Vincent was one of those French filmmakers that a few American critics latched onto back in the 1990s, for his films La discrète (1990) and La séparation (1994), but he never really went anywhere, at least in this country. (I haven't heard anything about him since then.) Haute Cuisine looks and feels like a Weinstein movie, lightweight and chirpy with a twiddling musical score, and it's unclear whether the Weinsteins did their usual tinkering, or whether Vincent was trying to make a more mainstream, successful movie. (The Weinsteins certainly changed the title, which was originally Les saveurs du Palais, or "the flavors of the palace.")

Either way, the movie that arrives in theaters is a small pleasure, especially for those of us who love our "food movies" (and not "food porn").

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