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Vatel (2000)


    Vatel, François (fräNswä´ vätl´)Ý(KEY)Ý, fl. 17th cent., French chef, famous in the time of Louis XIV. Mme Marie de Sévigné,
    in her letters, speaks of him as the chef of the prince of Condé and says that on a Friday, when the king was coming to dinner
    and the fish failed to arrive in time, Vatel committed suicide. The authenticity of this story is doubtful.
        -The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition.ÝÝ2001.

Playwright/Screenwriter Tom Stoppard and Director Roland Joffe have taken the Francois Vatel of historical legend and turned him into a quintessential French hero in this fabulous looking but oddly soulless film.  In France in 1671, Louis XIV is King and, as Mel Brooks might say : "It's good to be the King!" Fab babes are always ready to get their freak on with you and your nobles will do anything to curry favor.  So when the Prince de Conde is informed that Louis and his court will be coming to visit his estate , Chantilly, Conde tells his famed steward Vatel to pull out all the stops.  Perversely, Conde, who is in desperate need of money, will have to plunge himself even deeper into debt in the mere hope that Louis will choose him to command the royal forces in the coming war with Holland.

Given a blank check, Vatel proceeds to put on the most sumptuous and ornate feasting imaginable.  There's a moment early in the King's visit where as the King walks through the garden the scenery rises, collapses, is rearranged and fits together again like pieces of an elaborate puzzle--by itself this scene is worth the price of admission.  It is remarkable.  As the visit goes on, Vatel must improvise when shortages crop up, must respond to the extravagant requests of the various guests, and must navigate the petty jealousies of the spoiled visitors.  He gets himself in a real bind when he dallies with the beautiful and reserved Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman) who is both the King's latest favorite and the object of desire of the nasty and vindictive Marquis de Lauzon (Tim Roth).

The caged bird imagery that Mr. Joffe resorts to is a tad heavy-handed, but the film nicely captures the stratification of society (though that does make the relationship between Vatel and Anne rather improbable) and shows the degree to which everyone is subject to the whims of the King, who can make or break you with the wave of his hand.  Gerard Depardieu as Vatel is appealingly earnest and his total commitment to his work raises it to the level of artistry.  He is so decent, and the culture around him so indecent, that we can understand why Anne is attracted to him, even if we don't believe they could have been friends given the circumstances of the day, let alone lovers.

Then the story takes a couple of odd twists, one that seems to have been pilfered from Ruggles of Red Gap, as Conde loses Vatel to the King in a card game, then one which matches the fate of the historical Vatel but which occurs for precisely the opposite reason.  In real life Vatel supposedly killed himself for failing to serve the King well, here he kills himself rather than serve the King at all.  That seems too much license to take with history.

The film received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Art Direction, but one wonders if so much energy went into the look of the movie that the filmmakers lost track of the need to tell a compelling story along with the pretty pictures.  When the climactic scene of the film was going on it came so suddenly and was shot so obliquely that, not knowing the background of the story,  I honestly didn't realize what had happened right away.  The logic they saw on their story boards didn't quite make it to the screen.  It's definitely worth seeing (and DVD is a must), but you can probably watch with the sound off; it's intended to be looked at more than watched.

(Reviewed:22-Apr-02)

Grade: (C+)

Websites:

See also:

    -INFO : Vatel (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Roland Joffe (Imdb.com)
    -PROFILE : Roland Joffé : The creator of "The Mission" and "The Killing Fields" describes his latest cinematic feast, "Vatel," and explains why a cook and a director have more in common than you'd think. (Stephen Lemons, March 2, 2001, Salon)
    -Everything Depardieu : Vatel
    -Vatel, François (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth EditionÝ2001)Ý
    -REVIEW : of Vatel (Jessica Winter, The Village Voice)
    -REVIEW : of Vatel (LA Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of Vatel (Premiere)
    -REVIEW : of Vatel (David Noh , Film Journal)
    -REVIEW : of Vatel (Michael Dequina, Film Threat)
    -REVIEW : of Vatel (David D'Arcy, Film.com)
    -REVIEW : of Vatel (Catharine Tunnacliffe, eye WEEKLY)
    -REVIEW : of Vatel (Bruce Kirkland, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Vatel (Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times)

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