Though it’s bound to inspire a wealth of gustatory adjectives (my throat is set to “groan” mode for anything remotely resembling “delicately buttery” or “fluffily bite-sized”), what defines Kings of Pastry most indelibly is its quietness. This aesthetic at first seems counter-intuitive for a film about patisserie, an art synonymous with the indulgence of guilty pleasures and the comfort of fattening stimuli; from the get-go, we’re barraged with dainty close-ups of crisp creams and confections fashioned into complex designs that have our mouths hanging open and salivating simultaneously. But as an interview placed manifesto-ly in act one by directors D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus propounds, the philosophy of French pastry is antithetical to that of the American all-you-can-eat buffet: The goal is momentary sensual transcendence rather than arrogant surfeit, an end that, while more rewarding, requires an effortful flourish of puissance from both baker and ingester.
Kings of Pastry gently documents one representation of that endurance, cataloguing the preparations for an annual contest orchestrated by the French Ministry of Labor to recognize patisserie mastery; winners are crowned with a lifelong, career-ensconcing title, known as Meilleur Ouvrier de France (or MOF), and a stately tri-color neckband for their chef dress. For some competitors the event is a fixation that has informed the gestation of their craft for years, and we observe as painstaking rituals of whipping, molding, drizzling, and tasting become saturated with hypnotic determination. In one subtly astounding scene, Jacquy Pfeiffer—an Alsace émigré who now toils at the French Pastry School in Chicago and the candidate followed most closely by the directors—agonizes punctiliously for hours over a domed component for a sculpted cake before daubing a bit on his tongue, deeming the filling too dry, and tossing the remainder in the trash. The delectable product here is subordinate to the singular process, a truism apotheosized poetically by Pfeiffer’s laser beam of focus and outwardly glacial, inwardly roiling demeanor.
As the movie shifts focus from the participants’ remarkable crunching to the three hectic days of the MOF time trials themselves, we feel the soft spell of these tactile artists’ methodical gestures wavering. Perhaps due to the sensory limitations of cinema, or the need to promote the drama with more simplicity, the opulent appearance of the baked goods—some of which are adorned with ornate sugar swans and multi-colored ribbons—is given more consideration than the tantalizingly mysterious flavor. And Pennebaker isn’t an immediate match for the competition’s intimate tension and hushed climaxes; unlike Albert Maysles, whose eye for fleeting but crucial interactions allows for uniquely observed mosaics of detail, Pennebaker possesses a kinetic dedication to the dominant rhythms of the moment he’s capturing. But Kings of Pastry learns to manage its musicality by perceiving the MOF hopefuls as an awkward yet profoundly sympathetic community; these men only have one another to comprehend how passionately they pursue their dense, moist obsessions. (The fact that all competitors in this particular year are male compounds this with a sprinkling of rarely seen masculine sensitivity.) These infatuations infuse with sweat-refined talent in a cavalcade of sublimated anguish and delight—and eventually, the squeezing of meringue dollops and the patting of heart-broken backs with calmly compassionate hands becomes just as persuasively organic as the jazzy transit of Daybreak Express or the furious ontology of Monterey Pop.