[Written for Mr. Showbiz]
The 53rd Cannes Film Festival opened with a gala extravaganza whose selection struck many as prodigiously ironic — especially if they caught the flick at a morning press show, when Tom Stoppard’s high-flying dialogue and Ennio Morricone’s once-upon-a-time-in-the-17th-century music had to fight the noise from the drills and hammers readying the Palais for the postfilm Louis XIV–style blowout that evening. Here was a jaw-droppingly lavish movie about the jaw-droppingly lavish steps taken to keep “the Sun King” adequately wined, dined, and entertained over a three-day visit, late in April of 1671, to a country château whose owner, the Prince de Condé, couldn’t even afford to pay the local merchants. Moreover, it was the English-language film rendering of one of French history’s most peculiar episodes, with France’s premier incarnator of French national heroes, former bad boy Gérard Depardieu, gamely trading mots anglais with the likes of Uma Thurman, Tim Roth, and Timothy Spall. And if you’ve got room for one more dislocation, consider that Roland Joffé, the director honored with this opening-night selection, whiled away the ’90s cooking such turkeys as City of Joy, The Scarlet Letter, and the never-released Goodbye Lover.
Tough to get a favorable reading out of those entrails. How much more pleasant, then, to report that Vatel is not only pâté and truffles to the eyes but a bracingly Olympian analysis of how history happens. Without stinting on the courtly back-stabbing, overlapping conspiracies, and amatory rondelays in which period-pictures customarily traffic, the movie urges us to “follow the money” — or rather, try to keep track of the fearsome whirl of focused intentions and flailing desperation in the vacuum chamber where the money isn’t. Personal destiny, national honor, the price of a steak or a woman or a man’s silence — it’s all in the wind.
The still yet vigorous center of the action is François Vatel (Depardieu), the loyal valet charged with saving this lost weekend for his impecunious master (Julian Glover as the prince). He’s a gustatory field-marshal and master impresario, part Escoffier and part Cecil B. DeMille (in his Cleopatra’s-barge period), as he designs one spectacle after another and improvises like an inspired illusionist to stay ahead of catastrophe. (Not enough meat? Stretch it with mushrooms. All those glass lamp chimneys for the lawn banquet got broken in transit? Carve up some gourds, stick candles inside, and pass it off as an exotic custom from India.) Never has a period picture given so much backstage information about the infinite detail supporting “high life.”
But Vatel also keeps track of all the lives within his ken and under his (so he feels) protection: his fading master, whom he loves and perhaps trusts too well; a kitchen boy whom the king’s brother hopes to add to his retinue of “pages”; a groom who grotesquely pays the price offstage for a special effect that leaves the royal audience properly amused. Vatel’s spiritual husbandry catches the interest and then the fervent sympathy of Anne de Monthausier (Uma Thurman), a lady-in-waiting who may not have to wait much longer to move into a closer orbit round the king, even as she strains to keep his chief courtier, the Machiavellian Marquis de Lauzun (Tim Roth), at arm’s length. As we said, conspiracies and rondelays, but sadder and meaner, and somehow more inevitable and more human, than they’ve mostly seemed in this kind of movie heretofore.
2020: Never saw, never heard of, Vatel? Not surprising. Everybody else hated the movie, a classic instance of a risibly bad film selected for opening night of a festival. Except I seem to have liked it. —RTJ