Chris Hegedes and D.A. Pennebaker’s latest, seemingly effortless masterwork begins as an easy-paced chronicle of one man’s preparations for a grueling, three-day pastry showdown. The hoped-for award: a medal and the right to wear a tricolor collar on your chef’s coat, distinguishing you as Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman in France). The film is immediately inviting for the ease with which chef Jacquy Pfeiffer lets the camera examine his efforts, family life, and passion, but the real surprise here comes when the simple foodie story turns into a vigorous and emotionally captivating competition tale. Three featured chefs—Pfeiffer, Philippe Rigollot, and Regis Lazard—from a field of 16 finalists create artful sculptures in chocolate, cake, candy ribbon, and sugar in front of a cadre of MOF judges, whose variously wizened, experienced, and clever faces are as evocative a tableau as anything in Pennebaker’s back catalogue. The film aptly dictates at least one parallel to Olympic competition: Be good on the day of the trial or forget getting an award around your neck.
On the surface, Kings of Pastry can seem like an underwhelming step for a filmmaking team that delved inside the Clinton campaign in The War Room. The documentary field is occasionally deemed film’s last respite for cutting-edge political or social commentary; the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, where Kings of Pastry premiered as the opening night selection Thursday night, is bursting with war photography, political investigations, top-flight jazz and art examinations, and environmental messaging. A pastry competition may be comparatively small subject matter. Some of the drama of the latter part of the movie is familiar from many a Food Network program, such as the high-pitched tension that comes when a chef tries to carry his atmosphere-scraping sugar centerpiece from one table to another. Even the style is beholden to documentary techniques—handheld video, obtrusive titles, and taking-head interviews—they’ve avoided to groundbreaking effect in Don’t Look Back.
But, beginning with opening shots of French president Nicholas Sarkozy delivering a supercilious speech to MOF winners about the two skills (manual and intellectual), Hegedes and Pennebaker never try to make a case for this movie as high-value theater. They cover the action with a goofy, tippy-tappy piano soundtrack that occasionally rips through La Marseillaise, and they embrace the odd balance between the levity of the characters’ work and craft with the seriousness their world-class talent demands. Halfway through Pfeiffer’s wedding cake recipe early in the film (complete with a visual, split-screen interplay between his craftsmanship and close-up looks at the cake so sumptuous they verge on the pornographic), it is clear no other mode could capture this story. You have to let the chefs work through it. The way they talk about pastry and the competition gives the story its importance, so that, even to an audience member without an interest in gourmet foods, the tossing out of most of Pfeiffer’s wedding cake after the effort is labeled only a minor step forward is an acute tragedy. The sense is that Hegedes and Pennebaker had very little prodding to do. As if to prove the point, they left in the film one moment when they went too far: “How did it go?” a voice asks Lazard after the first day of competition. He breezes by with a muffled, agitated, “Come on.”
The most impressive aspect of a very well made documentary is the rare patience of Hegedes and Pennebaker to let the chefs’ preparations develop slowly, on their own merits. One notably un-filmic scene involves two of Pfeiffer’s friends rating his efforts following a dry run of the competition. After a lengthy analysis of a pastry puff’s look and detail, the mentors pop the desert into their mouths. Minutes seem to tick by in one long take. The audience’s amusement mounts, waiting for a response (they have no critiques to add, not necessarily a good thing). In this way, and with the on-screen time to get close to these marvelous craftsmen, the filmmakers bring two television tropes to the big kids’ table. They do better with a cooking story than any made-for-television competition can ever hope to do. And Hegedus and Pennebaker accomplish what NBC’s Olympic coverage never has: drawing the audience fully into an obscure competition with a personal story that is heartfelt and genuine, rather than melodramatic. It helps that the people in Kings of Pastry explain a few of the competition’s rules and dealbreakers along the way. Take note, Sochi 2014 figure skating commentators.
The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival runs from April 8 to 11.