Christian Vincent’s Haute Cuisine offers all the ingredients for a great feast of enticing visions and thematic concerns, only to have them be prepared, plated, and served with the grace of Elmer Fudd. The story, a largely fictional abstraction of chef Daniele Delpeuch’s time as President François Mitterrand’s personal cook in the early ’90s, presents both the stress and sublime comforts of the art of cooking within the busiest hub of France’s social and political debates. As such, the script circles around Delpeuch’s proxy, Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot), and her relationship with the powers that be at the Elysee Palace and, indeed, even her cooking becomes fodder for political discourse. For Vincent, the story of a contented, successful artist invited to practice her craft for the most powerful man in France has obvious personal implications for a director who’s been producing films for the country’s major studios for the last decade.
This view of artistic struggle, however, yields largely unremarkable insights. Vincent stresses Laborie’s unyielding professionalism, wit, and due annoyance, but never conveys the passion and history that goes into her craft. At one point, Hortense shares an unexpected conversation about her favorite childhood cooking books with the president, played by Jean d’Ormesson. They lament the loss of personality in the recipes over the years, the way they were written specifically with detailed recollections of unique experiences, and later, Hortense critiques a dessert made by her rival (Brice Fournier) in the main kitchen as being impersonal. The irony hits like heartburn, as Vincent offers only anonymity in his imagery, guided by dull exactness and professionalism. If there’s any sense of passion here, it’s only inferred by Hortense’s stilted frustration with the staffers, who begin dictating how she should cook for the president, their demands ranging from restricting sauces to buying from different farmers and butchers.
In Hortense’s bothersome dealings with the president’s staff, Vincent seems to see the faces of film market-testers, agents, managers, publicists, and journalists who’ve burdened and manipulated his own profession. The president, arguably, represents one of the most educated and cultured opinions in France, and Vincent roots the story’s drama in the increasing difficulty of simply learning and preparing what he (read: the audience) wants to eat (read: watch). In this, the director ultimately expresses bitterness toward what he sees as a bureaucratic stifling of great, personal art, an opinion that would be easy to align with if Haute Cuisine came within a country mile of greatness or genuine personality.
Vincent’s aesthetic is serviceable, in so much as he presents the story clearly, but his sense of movement, space, and light brings to mind the banality of a Williams-Sonoma catalogue. Similarly, the script seems engineered for utility over wit or insight. The film’s framing device, set a year or two after the main plot, sees Hortense cooking for a large group of Antarctic researchers, and their reception to her unbound yet simple cooking is enthusiastic. The suggestion is that serving a great meal to the humble, simple working class is more endearing and rewarding than kowtowing to the busy schedules and necessities of the self-serious elite. It’s a simplistic viewpoint with very little in the way of nuance, all the better for a film content to blatantly capitalize on foodie culture. As an entertainment, it goes through the motions with passable charm, thanks largely to the cast, but this hardly excuses a film that spends an inordinate amount of time in praise of black truffles.