Delicious. M, 113 minutes. Four stars.
It may not be the right year, or the real chef, or the exact historical moment when public dining rooms opened in France, but do we really mind? When this delectable gastronomy comedy gets so much right, going along with the confected notion that underpins it ensures it will work its magic on us, whatever the facts.
At the heart of Delicious is the irresistible idea that restaurants began around the same time as the storming of the Bastille, that iconic moment imbued with liberty, fraternity and equality. The film is set in 1789, in the months before the French Revolution erupted and dispersed its democratic ideals across the world.
It turns on the moment the chef at the chateau of the Duke of Chamfort (Benjamin Lavernhe) quits after insulting remarks about a banquet prepared for his master's table. When summoned to the dining room, Pierre Manceron (Gregory Gadebois) stands his ground, refusing to apologise for the minor misdeed of a culinary experiment, a little pastry filled with truffle and potato. A mere appetite tantaliser, something new, an innocent accompaniment to the magnificent spread prepared for lunch for the duke that day.
Pierre did well to keep a straight face when summoned before the duke and his guests. Caricatures of the Ancien Regime in their powdered noses, rouged cheeks, and preposterous wigs, they are quite a bunch. In a spirited performance during these scenes of high farce, Lavernhe, a performer with the Comedie Francaise, gives the role of the odious duke everything he's got.
Mushrooms and potatoes are, didn't Pierre know, pig food? Only a member of the masses could not know that, but Pierre rejects the insults outright. Well, he remains silent because as an inventive creative he won't be a lackey to ignorant opinion, nor forced to grovel. He marches off with his adult son, Benjamin (Lorenzo Lefebre) in tow.
Deep in the countryside, Pierre sets up a bakery but quickly loses his passion for cuisine. Despite this, Benjamin is totally against his father returning to the Chamfort chateau under any circumstances, and works on other solutions. Young Benjamin always has his nose stuck in a book, especially the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other writers boosting a new political order. On fire with revolutionary zeal, the idealistic and impetuous son is a reminder of goings-on in Paris.
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An attractive, mysterious, mature woman of the world, Louise (Isabelle Carre) arrives on the scene, keen for Pierre to take her on as an apprentice. Director Eric Besnard might have been pushing his luck inserting this independent-minded, modern character into his story, but again, do we mind? Non. The collaboration that gives birth to the first restaurant becomes a group effort, a combination of youthful zeal, culinary arts and secret women's business that will sit nicely with today's audiences.
Eventually the downstairs room and garden at Pierre's home become public eating spaces. A place for those who don't wish to cook at home, and a place for travellers who need a meal while on the road. Restaurant and routier bistro, all in one.
This is a jaunty celebration of food culture crowded with personalities, most especially Pierre, whose bulky figure dominates the frame. A stubborn man of few words, yet an innovative culinary artist whose creations are to die for.
This story of how French haute cuisine democratised and became available to the masses is not out to make big political points, but it does so nonetheless with its deft juxtapositions and understated wit, and engaging performances all-round. Besnard, whose filmography suggests he has struggled to find a voice that resonates, co-wrote the spirited screenplay with Nicolas Boukhrief.
The look in Delicious is a pleasure too. There are the familiar scenes of beautiful French countryside while, under subdued lighting in keeping with 18th-century interiors, sumptuous dishes still manage to look grand. From time to time, cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou stops moving, opting for an arrangement along the lines of a Dutch still life painting.
Whether the evolution of French cuisine was a top-down affair, trickling to the masses, or it evolved from the richly-endowed provincial base, this ode to its pleasures, now UNESCO-recognised cultural heritage, is light and luscious fare. Delicious is a seriously good trifle for celebrating the festive season.