French cooking holds one of the top places in the upper echelon of culinary delicacies. Its decadent food could turn just about anyone into a drooling mess. As such, Haute Cuisine (2012) is not a film to be watched on an empty stomach. The film, directed by Christian Vincent, is loosely based on the true story of renowned chef Daniéle Delpeuch, who worked as the Private Cook for President François Mitterand. During its 95 minute run time, the audience is treated to a veritable visual feast of traditional French home cooking and delicate pastries.
Haute Cuisine opens in Antarctica, where a film crew is covering life on a French base. There they notice one woman working in the sea of men and attempt to nab an interview. The woman, Hortence Laborie (Catherine Frot) is the base chef, and as we soon discover, previously worked for France’s president as his private chef at the Elysee Palace. A strong and confident woman, Hortence specializes in traditional French home cooking. At first confused as to why she is being brought in when the president already has a chef who specializes in fancy food, Hortence is told that the president craves traditional French home cooking for his private meals. Hortence sets about revolutionizing the private kitchen, bringing in fresh local ingredients, asserting her authority, and bonding with the president over love for the simple joys of French cooking.
Although Haute Cuisine has all the pieces to make an entertaining film, its fatal error is in its plot’s lack of a central conflict. There is really nothing motivating the story, and the few minor conflicts that occur are woefully underdeveloped. One such story element is Hortence’s battle for respect. When she first enters the Elysee Palace she meets the workers of the main kitchens and their head chef (all of them men and largely dismissive of her.) Their attitudes seem to stem from a mix of sexist attitudes, and later, jealously, when it is made clear that the president prefers Hortence’s cooking. This leads to the occasional battle of wills, but the issue is never fully explored and only visited a handful of times over a two-year period. Hortence simply continues on, and remains unchanged despite any hardships or restrictions.
Hortence’s static nature is another strike against this promising film. Despite what happens to her, stubborn Hortence does not change, and shows no growth as the film progresses. She is emotionally flat and, depending on the situation, flips between confidently happy or confidently angry. Much of her dialogue consists of long descriptions of food and food preparation. It’s clear she knows her stuff, but soon we wonder if there is anything else for her to say. It is as if her whole life takes place within the walls of the Elysee Palace. She seems to have no friends, and we never see her communicating with her family, although she mentions them occasionally. Hortence is all business all the time, and, sadly, has less personality than the food she prepares.
The one shining beacon of hope that Haute Cuisine has to offer is its stunning shots of food. The meals are the true stars of this film, each rich in colour and showcasing masterful plating. If anything, French foodies will appreciate the loving attention Hortence’s dishes receive. Unfortunately for the rest of us, although the film is visually beautiful, Haute Cuisine ultimately flounders under its flat characters and undercooked story.
Haute Cuisine is currently playing at International Village Cinemas
Click here to watch the trailer