Yesterday I made a last minute decision to go to the movies. Unfortunately, I only glanced at the show times and when I arrived, I found out that the movie I wanted to see wasn't playing. So I made the split-second decision to buy a ticket to a movie I knew nothing about, "Les Saveurs du Palais".
Starring Catherine Frot, a French national treasure who is equally skilled at drama and comedy, the film is loosely inspired by the real-life experiences of Daniele Delpeuch, who became for a short time President Mitterand's personal chef.
The movie actually opens in Antarctica, where Frot's character Hortense is ending up her one-year post as cook for a French research base. The film then flashes back to show her being whisked away from her respected farm/restaurant in the French countryside to the Elysée Palace (the French equivalent of the white house) to become private chef to an unnamed President. It seems the President is tired of the overly fancy and impersonal food coming out of the Palace's central kitchen and is looking for something simpler & more authentic and Hortense, despite her lack of worldliness, is just the woman for the job.
The film continues to flash back and forth between the Elysée Palace and Antarctica, where Hortense is preparing her last dinner for the base. The film uses the entirely unnecessary conceit of an Australian documentarian who is interested in telling Hortense's story to provide linking elements to the episodic storyline. Actually, I'm not sure the film really needed the Antarctica portions at all, except perhaps to show how Hortense has transformed from a dedicated but discreet figure to an outspoken, adventurous spirit.
Unfortunately, we don't see much of that transformation during the film. We see none of Hortense's private life or even know much of what's going on her head. We get a few scenes of her dealing with the chauvinism of the cooks from the central kitchen, fighting against budget and dietary restrictions and doubting whether the President likes what's she doing, but not enough to justify her decision to quit after two years.
Luckily, Catherine Frot is such a compelling actress that she is able to carry the film practically alone and make Hortense a believably grounded and passionate cook even if we know nothing else about her. Her few scenes with the cultured and possibly ill President, who is equally fond of good food and wine, especially food from his childhood, are quite touching and have the ring of real-life truth to them.
And of course, there's the food. Director Christian Vincent, who has made several light, intelligent dramatic comedies, films Hortense cooking with obvious admiration. The meals she plans and makes, which mainly come from handed-down recipes and out-of-print cookbooks, are impressive and mouthwatering. At its heart, the film is a love-letter to what the French call cuisine à la grand-mère, grandmother's cooking: food that is hearty but not overly complicated, satisfying to the senses and the stomach, but is also able to conjure up memories of happier times.
The filmmakers seems quite concerned that this kind of cooking is being lost, and they're probably right. My kids actually do have a French grandmother who spends all day in the kitchen when we visit and serves up elaborate three course meals where everything is made from scratch. If I ever have grandkids, I fear they will be shit outta luck since the most I can conjure up are some home-made brownies.
In addition to old-fashioned cooking, "Les Saveurs du Palais" reminded me of another simple pleasure - seeing a film that you nothing about. I had not read a review of this movie or seen a trailer, I knew nothing about the plot or even who was in it other than Catherine Frot. In truth, it's probably not a movie I would have sought out in the theater. The poster makes it look like Frot is the President's food taster rather than a chef and I'm not a big fan of titles with puns in them (in French, Palais is both the word for Palace and palate. Get it?)
As mentioned before, there's not much story here (an American version would surely introduce a romance between the President and the chef or show more how Hortense is torn between her homelife and her job), but like with cooking, sometimes simpler is better. I have no idea if "Les Saveurs du Palais" will get an international release (IMDB does give its English title as "Haute Cuisine", so maybe). But whether in the theater or on video, I recommend giving it a try. (man, it is really hard not to end with a food pun here.)