This woman's place was in the kitchen
Foodie alert: Get thee to Haute Cuisine, a gastronomic must-see based on the true story of the woman who served as personal chef to French president Francois Mitterand. Stuffed salmon between cabbage layers, anyone? Foie gras with apple ginger chutney and cocoa nibs tuile? A nice choux pastry for dessert, perhaps?
Working with a small staff in a modest kitchen, and working against an aggressively hostile male chef and his pan-slamming underlings on the other side of the Elysee Palace, this woman - her name in the film is Hortense Laboire, in real life Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch - was the walking, talking embodiment of classic French cuisine.
And as played by Catherine Frot in Christian Vincent's thoroughly engaging film, she is a force to be reckoned with. Strong-willed, elegant, a tiny bit nutty (she talks to herself while working her way through recipes), she can - and does - wax rhapsodic about the glories of truffles, and the growers who farm the lands in her native Périgord region, far from the stuffy food purveyors of Paris.
Framed as flashback - as the film begins, Hortense is making meals at a scientific base in remotest Antartica - Haute Cuisine works two ways. One, as a story of female triumph over an institution of boorish males - only the president of the Republic (a suitably dignified Jean d'Ormesson) seems to appreciate her talents and understand her artistry. And two, as an excuse to celebrate the culinary traditions of the most culinary-minded of cultures, the French.
Like Big Night, I Am Love, Babette's Feast and Eat Drink Man Woman before it, Vincent's Haute Cuisine is an epicurean dream where the dishes conjured up by the characters are as essential to the experience as the characters themselves.
Haute Cuisine *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Christian Vincent. With Catherine Frot, Arthur Dupont, and Jean d'Ormesson. In French with subtitles. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Bourse and County Theater, Doylestown