“Based on a true story” films are necessarily problematic, particularly when they stray into biopic territory, and try to cover a human life over the course of a couple of hours, squeezing it into a pat narrative arc along the way. There are solutions, though, and the French film Haute Cuisine finds what may be the best combination possible: It covers a small period of time, it doesn’t force an arc, it focuses on the meaning of moments rather than the meaning of a life, and it lets viewers interpret what they see, rather than imposing windy statements of purpose. And on top of all that, it gives its subjects fictional names, to make it clear that this is intended first and foremost as a narrative story about people, not as a warped version of history. This all amounts to a principled, intelligent approach, but it’s also a recipe for what turns out to be a warm and enjoyable small-scale film.
Catherine Frot (the chilly career pianist of The Page Turner) stars as small independent French farm owner Hortense Laborie, based on author, chef, and cooking-school founder Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch. The film initially finds her preparing an elaborate going-away feast to celebrate the end of her stint as cook for the denizens of a French research station in the Antarctic. (The sequence echoes Babette’s Feast, though with less of a sense of a single meal as a once-in-a-lifetime break in brutally austere living, sere surroundings aside.) When an Australian journalist (Arly Jover) learns that Hortense was previously the personal chef to the president of France, she pursues what she sees as a story, but Hortense curtly indicates that she isn’t interested in revisiting her past. Her reluctance suggests a scandal, and a fall from grace—a royal favorite’s banishment from the palace to the hinterlands. The truth, as it usually is, is simpler and more practical.
Nevertheless, flashbacks follow Hortense’s two years in the private kitchen of the Élysée Palace, cooking for a never-named elderly French president (Jean d’Ormesson) based on François Mitterrand. Like Mitterrand, the president ordered his staff to find him a private cook capable of serving up simple meals like his grandmother used to make, and as in reality, his staff took the recommendation of Michelin Guide darling Joël Robuchon. While Hortense protests that she makes simple country food, not ornate palace presentation fare, that’s precisely what the president wants.
But it takes a while for her to be sure, because once she’s whisked into her own small private kitchen with her own doe-eyed, callow sous-chef (Arthur Dupont), she’s entirely isolated from the one client whose tastes she’s expected to suit. Again, there’s a faintly medieval-fantasy element to her desire to please the powerful man in the ornate rooms above, while dealing with the jealousy and resentment of the rest of the understairs staff—particularly the Main Kitchen chef, who doles out 3,000 meals a month to Hortense’s 150, and proclaims that everyone in the palace is replaceable except him. Sometimes the notions of class and the story’s universal emotions suggest that this entire story could easily be ported to any era of French kings, with few changes outside the costumes. Haute Cuisine’s portrayal of the entourage, schedules, and vast practical mechanisms needed to juggle all a president’s obligations aren’t particularly different from the way other films handle the machinery of kingship.
But there’s a thoroughly modern food-porn-movie flavor to the way director/co-writer Christian Vincent frames the output of Hortense’s kitchen, which seems like “simple country fare” only by the standards of French haute cuisine. Foie gras is a fundamental staple of everything Hortense does, and elaborate preparations of herb-encrusted, pastry-wrapped meats are common. Vincent lingers over the preparation and the results, making them appropriately droolworthy, the usual method of cinematically expressing a chef’s devotion to cooking as art. But the film goes much further in defining Hortense’s perfectionism, as she finally gets an audience with the president and they bond over recipes and shared tastes, and as she flouts convention and goes outside the usual supply chain to source her own ingredients. If nothing else, that emphasis on the importance of freshness and quality makes this feel like a modern food film rather than an import from another era.
Haute Cuisine never spells out any significant narrative link between Hortense’s Antarctica present and her French-palace past; possibly the former was just a real-life detail too juicy for Vincent and co-writer Etienne Comar to resist. But the Antarctic scenes are important because they offer a portrait of Hortense as unchanged by her palace adventure: She’s still an exacting artisan, still winning converts with her cooking, and still combining a snappish adherence to quality with a wholly Gallic version of distant, matronly friendliness. The sequences also suggest a more nuanced character than the standard biopic allows: Hortense has more than one narrative thread, and is more than a product of a single place or moment. Vincent seems to have consciously designed Haute Cuisine as a small movie, in scope and approach: Rather than puffing it up with prestige-season grandeur or gravitas, he echoes the homey approachability of Hortense’s cooking. But that simplicity is a winning choice. For once, this true story actually feels relatively true.