Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot) is a famous chef who lives in the Périgord region. To her great surprise, the president of the French Republic (Jean d'Ormesson) appoints her as his personal chef at the Élysée Palace. In spite of the jealousy of the main kitchen cooks, Hortense imposes herself thanks to her sturdy character. The authenticity of her cuisine rapidly seduces the president, but behind the scenes of power, obstacles are many.

 

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A dull dish of a drama.

Haute Cuisine (aka Les Saveurs du Palais, which very roughly translates as Flavour in the Palace) begins on an island allegedly off the coast of Antarctica where Madame Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot providing a professional and enjoyable performance) is the head cook. On the island as well is an Australian journalist, also alleged (this actress gives the worst attempt at an Australian accent ever projected onto a screen – Quentin Tarantino’s Django turn has nothing on this), and her British cameraman. The two-person news crew are desperate for a story to tell and are excited by gossip that Madame Laborie’s previous gig was personal chef to France’s President. Madame Laborie doesn’t want to talk about it – it clearly didn’t end happily – and she certainly doesn’t want to talk about it on camera. Fortunately, thanks to the magic of flashbacks, we are served up the story.

this is not really a film about food



Despite the re-jigged, somewhat misleading title and all the loving images of cabbages stuffed with salmon, fruits of the forest tarts or Saint-Honoré, this is not really a film about food. The drive of the film comes from the fact that by being recruited from her rural produce farm, to the presidential kitchen, Madame Laborie raises the ire of the president’s territorial male chefs. Like all political animals, the chefs defend their territory zealously – and ruthlessly – no matter what Le President may prefer to eat.

The script is loosely based on a memoir by Daniele Delpeuch. Working in the Mitterand era, Delpeuch remains the only female chef ever to work for the French President at the Palais del Elysee. Thankfully the script by Etienne Comar and director Christian Vincent doesn’t dwell on the 'battle of the sexes’ angle too much. This type of political scenario is enacted every day in more mundane jobs than this and with groups from book clubs to corporate banks and is certainly not an experience confined to women. Everyone knows the pressure to flee bullies and potentially abandon a great love in the process. Will Madame Laborie be able to successfully ward off the seasoned politicians and their culinary knives poised for backstabbing or will she successfully fight back?

Unfortunately, as the story is told in flashback, the answer is a foregone conclusion. The fact that Madame is now cooking for a bunch of bearded scientists and sailors on the arse end of the world, has already answered the question.

This narrative fills in the details and the battle is one where food quality loses out to a flavourless blend of bureaucracy and intrigue. But worse still, from a cinematic point of view, this political blancmange is presented without finesse. The script offers a lean bone in the form of a life lesson about how our passions are much more important than political victories. Furthermore, despite the protagonist’s dignity and talent, her actual passion appears muted. Haute Cuisine misses the vital ingredient of drama. All the perfectly photographed food in the world won’t make up for its absence"¦ unless of course you are only interested in food.