How exhausted must the list of biopic subjects be if producers are now spearheading movies about the employees of famous people? Like Lee Daniels’ The Butler, another recent Weinstein acquisition, Haute Cuisine dramatizes the experiences of a presidential servant. In this case, the leader is French head-of-state François Mitterrand, and his loyal subordinate is Danièle Delpeuch, plucked out of relative obscurity in the late ’80s to serve as the president’s private chef. To be fair, Delpeuch wasn’t known exclusively for her two years at the Élysée Palace; before earning that honor, she enjoyed a reputation among globetrotting food fanatics as “the queen of foie gras,” dedicated to spreading the fundamentals of French cooking across the globe. Haute Cuisine, however, is interested primarily in her most famous assignment (fictionalized only slightly, though apparently enough so that the filmmakers felt the need to assign her an alias). Such narrowness of focus keeps the movie from becoming bloated with self-importance, but it also leaves it feeling a little inconsequential—more of a pleasing snack than a satisfying meal.
The best correlative here actually isn’t The Butler, but Pixar’s effervescent Ratatouille, with which the film shares a belief that cooking is a pastime for artists of all walks and that simplicity and fine dining are not mutually exclusive. As played by Catherine Frot, Delpeuch comes across as a figure of no-nonsense integrity, devoted to the craft above all else. Hired to fulfill the president’s desire for meals like those his grandmother used to make—he expresses dissatisfaction with sugar roses on the desserts, among other superfluous adornments—Frot soon finds herself sparring with the chefs of the main kitchen, whose snobbery and sexism turns the workplace into a culinary battleground. The jealous rivals whisper of indiscretions, but Haute Cuisine never presents the relationship between Frot and her hungry, mild-mannered employer (novelist Jean d’Ormesson) as anything more than platonic, mutual admiration. Nor does the film entertain reports that the real Delpeuch shared an apartment space with the president’s mistress. The conflicts here are almost exclusively professional: Frot spars not just with green-eyed co-workers, but also chain-of-command bureaucrats, relentless penny-pinchers, and those true enemies of French cooking, nutritionists. Only in a film about Gallic gourmet artistry could the folks calling for just a little less butter and cream be derided as pure villains.
Periodically, director/co-writer Christian Vincent cuts away from his heroine’s days in the palace to a later, less glamorous gig: her 2000 tenure as the house chef for a group of grateful French researchers in Antarctica. With these passages, the film seems to be saying that it’s not prestige that matters, but the satisfaction of the served—a slightly ironic point, given that Delpeuch probably never would have gotten the biopic treatment were it not for her two years cooking for the president. Those hoping for a more comprehensive look at her methods and philosophies will be disappointed. Famished filmgoers, on the other hand, will get a feast for the eyes: Haute Cuisine never skimps on the food porn, lovingly lingering—in close-ups worthy of Williams-Sonoma—on Frot’s most tantalizing creations. There are worse thoughts to have walking out of a movie than, “I wonder if that French restaurant by my old apartment is still serving.”