A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
The word I kept thinking of while watching "Haute Cuisine" was "brisk," as in a brisk walk. This movie keeps up a vigorous pace and carries you along on the force of its self-confidence. A journalist and her cameraman arrive at French research station in the Antarctic to shoot what looks like a fairly mundane story, until she spots the only other woman on the island, who is at the dock to check out the foodstuffs that have arrived. When one of the men explains that this is their cook, and that she used to be the personal chef of the President of France, the journo snaps to attention. "Film her!" And we're off.
After a few quick scenes in the research station's kitchen, where Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot) is making incredibly elaborate food, we're thrown into flashback. Hortense is being whisked from her truffle farm in a government car to catch a train to Paris. Someone in government wants a chef, but precisely whom that would be has been left vague. Bang, we're in Paris, where Hortense learns that she is being offered the job of personal chef to President François Mitterand. The music, the snappy script and the editing have carried us along so quickly it feels almost like a thriller.
The thrills will come, but in the form of glossy reductions, plump escargot, rich duck breasts layered with delicately cooked vegetables, a cream cheese treat that requires straining through a mesh made of a particular grass. Like "Big Night," this is a food lover's movie. But while that movie luxuriated in the food, this one embraces the kinetic energy of kitchen creation.
Honestly, not much happens. Laborie meets the president (Jean D'Ormesson), a gentle soul nostalgic for the food of his youth. She spars with the pompous chef who runs the "main kitchen" of the Palais, the one that serves up hundreds of meals for the staff (a kitchen notably staffed exclusively by men). She battles Mitterand's dieticians, who want to put the frail old man on a low-fat diet (Quelle horreur!). She leaves. It's all interspersed with scenes in the Antarctic, where she prepares the last meals for the crew before she departs at the end of her year as their cook.