Les Saveurs du palais

Les saveurs du PalaisSynopsis: Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot), a renowned chef from Perigord, is astonished when the President of the Republic (Jean d’Ormesson) appoints her his personal cook, responsible for creating all his meals at the Elysee Palace. Despite jealous resentment from the other kitchen staff, Hortense quickly establishes herself, thanks to her indomitable spirit. The authenticity of her cooking soon seduces the President, but the corridors of power are littered with traps. Based on the extraordinary true story of President Francois Mitterand’s private cook.


Les Saveurs du palais 8.0

eyelights: the food preparation. the assistant chef.
eyesores: the lack of plot. the unusual construction and tone.

‘Les Saveurs du palais’ is a foodie movie loosely based the experiences of Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch, chef for French President François Mitterand from 1988 to 1990. If anything, it’s “inspired by”, with the names of the characters, including the lead, having been changed (aside for the President, who is never referred to by name).

Personally, I wasn’t that interested in seeing this. But it was my gf’s birthday and this is what she wanted to see, so we did. Honestly, I didn’t go grudgingly because she had talked about it before, so I was ready for it, but  also because it features Catherine Frot, whom I like. Had it been anyone else, I would have balked at it.

There’s not much story to it: Hortence Labonie gets a gig at the palais de l’Élysée, not knowing that this is where she is headed when she leaves for the interview, and proceeds to making food for the President – much to the dismay of the main kitchen help, who are highly competitive and see this as a slap in the face.

Then, after a short stint, she leaves. Meanwhile, interspersed in between those two events, there’s the story of a subsequent gig that she took for a year at an isolated research outpost in the North. It shows us the positive impact that she had on the people there – as well as the effect that this job had on her.

The problem is that we never really understand why she took this latter gig and what kind of healing she needed and got. It’s hinted at but there’s no true understanding; we’d have to guess what it was. So… what’s the point of the putting those interstitial bits, then? It doesn’t actually support or parallel the story at the Élysée.

One gets the impression that there should be more to the story, that there are too many elements left incomplete or unresolved (ex: there is no goodbye for Hortense when she leaves the Élysée – not even from her assistant). It was enough that I wondered if the North American version might be an edited down cut of the original film.

But there’s always Catherine Frot, whom I’ve enjoyed in countless films, including ‘Vipère au poing’, ‘Odette Toutlemonde‘ and ‘Le crime est notre affaire‘. She’s her usual great self, but I’ve been wondering about that smile of hers: it looks really pinched beneath her cheeks… has she had a facelift?

Anyway, despite the strong performances, the characters are generally not endearing: they’re all ego, with very little redeeming qualities aside from their respective skill – in particular the main kitchen’s staff. Even Hortense could come off as an @$$hole if we consider how single-minded and entitled she was.

The only more-or-less likeable people are:

  • The assistant, Nicolas Bauvois, who’s always got a smile on his face and seems to take everything in stride – including Hortense’s demands. He also seems to derive the utmost pleasure out of trying new things and attempting to get it right.
  • David Azoulay, the advisor who serves as a middleman between Hortense and the President; he seems alright. Bizarrely, at one point he leaves the Élysée and we aren’t told why. There’s no goodbye: he’s just replaced, taken out of the picture.
  • The President, who is mildly sympathetic, but who seems out of place as leader of the Republic; he appears more like a likeable, but frail, old man than the leader of a country. If no one called him by his title, you would never guess it.

What really fascinated me about this picture, and the reason that I still rate it as highly as I do, is the food preparation: seeing the science and exactitude behind it all, and how beautifully it ends up looking, was an entirely engrossing experience. The food in this picture is a visual feast like little else.

If one is into that sort of thing , then ‘Les Saveurs du palais’ is a terrific film; that’s what is at the heart of it. Pretty much everything else in the picture is sketchy and not entirely satisfying, but the food more than makes up for it. To me, it was a nice surprise – but non-foodies should consider this a 6.5-7.0.

Date of viewing: December 7, 2013

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