Vatel

Director Roland Joffé got his start working on the venerable English soap opera Coronation Street before moving on to helm more acclaimed fare like The Killing Fields and The Mission. More recently, Joffé has turned his attention toward projects like 1995's misbegotten, hot-blooded re-imagining of The Scarlet Letter and MTV's aggressively trashy soap Undressed, which he produces. With Vatel, he more or less splits the difference between his two areas of expertise to surprisingly good effect, connecting the bedroom intrigues of Sun-King-era France to more far-reaching themes of class and history. In 1671, as France appears destined to go to war with Holland, Louis XIV (Julian Sands) announces an unexpected visit to the gout-stricken, debt-ridden, out-of-fashion Prince de Condé (Julian Glover). Recognizing the visit as probably his last chance to reestablish himself in society and, almost incidentally, redirect resources to his western province, Glover calls on his master steward François Vatel (Gérard Depardieu) to prepare several days' worth of festivities sure to impress the visiting royalty. Operating partly as a chef, partly as a theatrical director, partly as a landscaper, and always as an artist, Depardieu strives for perfection in the tiniest detail while working within the constraints of Glover's pinched income. While his official duties stretch him thin, his unofficial ones drive him almost to exhaustion, as he attempts to protect a young boy in his charge from the attentions of the king's brother, address the under-the-table needs conveyed by the king's henchman (Tim Roth), and tend to the wounds of the king's fragile new plaything (Uma Thurman). With such an abundance of subplots, the screenplay, adapted to English by Tom Stoppard from Jeanne Labrune's French-language original, proves a model of economy. Joffé wisely lets all of the story's machinations revolve around Depardieu's soulful performance, one of his few English-language roles to play to his strengths as an actor. Though far from The Rules Of The Game, Vatel still makes salient points about the vast gulf between the ruling class and the rest of the world. Even when the film's symbolism lands with a thud and its beyond-lavish production design threatens to turn it into escapist fare for costume fanciers, it retains its value as a tribute to all those who have created beauty for the unappreciative, privileged few.

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