On April 10, 1671, according to the beginning of Roland Joffe’s sumptuous yet scathing “Vatel,” the Prince de Conde received a letter from a key aide to Louis XIV stating that the Sun King would accept an invitation for a visit to his estate, Chantilly--that “he wants no fuss, merely the simple pleasures of life in the country. In other words, if you value His Majesty’s favor you will set no limit to the extravagance and ingenuity of the festivities.”
As it happens, Conde (Julian Glover) is in dire need of Louis’ favor, for his province in the west of France is on the verge of financial ruin. While he would have to go far deeper into debt to entertain Louis and his court in suitably grand fashion, he has in his master steward Francois Vatel (Gerard Depardieu) a man with the genius to pull it off.
A perfectionist, Vatel is not only a great chef with the ability to direct an enormous kitchen staff. He also is a superb designer of baroque spectacles replete with fireworks, mimes, dancers and special effects all the more awesome because they were staged two centuries before electric power and lights came into use. A nascent republican at heart, Vatel loathes the monarchy but worships Conde as a nobleman, an acclaimed general whose restoration to favor will be good for France.
Louis (Julian Sands), in turn, will need the leadership of Conde if he is to go through with his plan to invade Holland on the premise that “No King is safe from free thinkers.” Conde is prepared to serve his country in battle, even though he is suffering severely from gout. Besides, he feels that fighting a war will be a piece of cake in comparison to entertaining the monarch for three days.
“Vatel” makes Conde emphatically believable. Vatel himself is like a general, marshaling an entire regiment of workers, peasants who slave away out of sight preparing and staging the exquisite meals and entertainments for Louis and his vast retinue.
Vatel is a juggler of infinite skill, resourcefully solving each and every crisis, but as his work proceeds and Louis et al arrive, “Vatel” moves from the virtual documentary to high drama.
In the royal party there is a ravishing newcomer, the regal Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman). Not only has she caught the king’s eye but also those of Vatel and the king’s nasty aide the Marquis de Lauzon (Tim Roth). To the monarch and the marquis she is but a sexual conquest, but Vatel and Anne recognize the decency and honesty in each other, qualities in short supply in the rarefied world in which they move but in which they have no real status.
Vatel is middle-aged and stout, but it is wholly understandable that Anne would be attracted to him as a man of strength and character. As staunch as the relationship between Conde and Vatel is, both nobleman and his steward live in a world as precarious as that of Anne, who realistically remarks that she has no way of knowing whether she is merely a momentary diversion from the king’s renowned favorite Athenais de Montespan (Marine Delterme) or whether she’ll end up a duchess.
Everyone is subject to the whims of Louis, the most absolute of absolute rulers. From start to finish in “Vatel,” beneath its veneer of utmost extravagance and elegance, seethes a bitter discontent that would erupt savagely into revolution some 120 years later.
In production design (by Jean Rabasse) and costume design (by Yvonne de Lassinot de Nesle) “Vatel” is a landmark in world cinema not merely for sheer grandeur but also attention to dense authenticity. As superb as the settings are, Joffe and Tom Stoppard, in adapting Jeanne Labrune’s original screenplay, do not let them overwhelm their people--although the scenery may crush them literally as well as symbolically.
Depardieu is perfectly cast as Vatel, an actual historic figure, at once a man of the people, a patriot and a true artist as well as an artisan of varied and highly developed skill. Thurman is equally fine as the gallant Anne, with Roth suitably nasty, Glover appropriately noble as Conde and Sands a delight as Louis, whom he plays as the shrewdest of fops. (On his best day Louis was never as handsome as Sands, but the actor hits just the right note of witty hauteur.) Arielle Dombasle is the lovely, fearless Princess de Conde. The evocative score is by none other than Ennio Morricone.
“Vatel” is arguably Joffe’s strongest film since his 1984 debut feature “The Killing Fields,” and significantly both deal with the terrible oppression of people living under despots.
Boldly distinctive in its depiction of individuals caught up in a veritable infernal machine designed solely to give pleasure to a monarch, “Vatel” is a timeless tale of love and sacrifice in a world as opulent as it is cruel.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content and some violence. Times guidelines: suitable for mature older children.
Gerard Depardieu: Francois Vatel
Uma Thurman: Anne de Montausier
Tim Roth: Marquis de Lauzon
Julian Sands: Louis XIV
Julian Glover: Prince de Conde
A Miramax presentation of a Franco-British co-production: Legende Enterprises/Gaumont in association with Nomad/Timothy Burrill Productions/T.F.1 Films Productions with the participation of Canal Plus. Director Roland Joffe. Producers Alain Goldman, Roland Joffe. Original screenplay by Jeanne Labrune; English adaptation by Tom Stoppard. Cinematographer Robert Fraisse. Editor Noelle Boisson. Music Ennio Morricone. Costumes Yvonne Lassinot de Nesle. Production designer Jean Rabasse. Historical advisor Marie-France Noel. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
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