Attempting to be both a female empowerment drama and food porn at the same time, the French import Haute Cuisine fails staggeringly on both counts thanks to a messy, arbitrary narrative told with absolutely no imagination, likeable (or even believable) characters, and a grating insistence to be as crowd pleasing as possible. It’s like someone eagerly promising steak tartare while doing cartwheels, but it’s really someone doing human barrel rolls while viciously gripping a Big Mac. Actually, that comparison makes the film sound more exciting and entertaining than it really is, but since even writing about this thing won’t be fun I’ll leave it in there because selfishly it will be the most fun I have even thinking about the 95 minutes I wasted on this.
Loosely based on the experiences of Daniele Delpeuch, the private chef for former French Prime Minister Francois Mitterand, but with all of the names changed and any semblance to anything remotely approaching reality removed, the film casts Catherine Frot as Hortense Laborie as the Delepeuch surrogate. Now working as a chef for a crew of sailors, scientists, and various labourers as they make their way to Antarctica, she captures the attention of an Australian documentary crew who want to learn more about this random chef rather than the expedition. Essentially the whole movie amounts to completely pointless flashbacks since never once does Hortense ever actually consent to an interview on camera, and she remains completely stand-offish towards them. It serves no purpose whatsoever except to add twenty minutes to the film’s running time just to show how much this crew appreciates her and looks to her as a surrogate mother figure that still refuses to hang out with any of them. It’s all useless compensating designed to make their lead character look like less of an asshole.
The bulk of the movie and what little plot there is involves Hortense being called away to be the private chef for the unnamed president (Jean d’Ormesson) at his Elysee country estate. Wanting “a bit of home cooking” amid the high cuisine, Hortense is a hard headed women who provides the leader with dishes the rest of the kitchen staff scoff at (and could honestly just make themselves if anyone ever asked them to, but I guess that’s completely beside the point here). She shakes things up by sourcing her own foods, steps on the toes of other chefs by placing her own dishes on the main menu, and generally by having a great rapport with the P.M.
It’s not enough for everyone around Hortense to be bratty and childish, but everyone in Christian Vincent’s inept wannabe of a feel-good movie is actually better than its abrasive heroine, who seems to actively get off on pissing people off and undercutting them at every turn. Not a single thing that Hortense ever does could be seen as anything other than incredibly selfish, which is fine for a chef in real life, but it’s a slog when the filmmakers clearly want the audience to root for someone they wouldn’t want to spend five minutes around. Watching Hortense run roughshod over everyone in a story that plays like Ratatouille for sociopaths isn’t a particularly fun experience.
Maybe as a high Aaron Sorkin or Anthony Bourdain-styled drama about the inner workings of a kitchen this could have worked, but Vincent cranks the audience manipulation dial up further than it can go and rips the knob off. With a string section backed emotional montage every five minutes it’s assaulting in many of the same ways as a Michael Bay action film. What’s worse is that it’s a whole lot of sound, fury, and admittedly okay looking food with nothing to say and nothing remotely interesting at stake. The film’s most dramatic moments don’t involve the president being ill, but in trying to adjust to new dietary requirements that Hortense thinks are hindrances and trying to procure a platter of oysters in a short amount of time.
It all builds to a climax that just comes almost out of nowhere to shut everything down. It wasn’t going anywhere, and at least it doesn’t hide the fact that it has absolutely nothing to say. Aside from the food seeming passably edible, that’s probably the best that can be said about this dross.