Published Mar 01, 2001With the sheer number of talented people who worked on this carefully crafted period drama, it's a wonder that the film ended up so remarkably unremarkable. Although "Vatel"is visually rich and, I'm sure, extremely historically accurate, director Roland Joffe ("The Killing Fields"), screen adapter Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare in Love"), and the cast of top quality actors such as Tim Roth, Julian Sands, Uma Thurman, and Gerard Depardieu cannot manage to forge any kind of emotional connection with the material, leaving the film feeling cold and distant despite the grand spectacle.
The film takes place during a three day visit that King Louis XIV (Julian Sands) and his Court make to a rural French province run by the Prince de Conde (Julian Glover) that is on the verge of financial ruin. The impoverished district must impress the decadent and fickle Court with extravagant banquets and elaborate performances in order to curry their favour and their money. The Prince de Conde entrusts the overseeing of the festivities to his steward Vatel (Gerard Depardieu), whose genius as a chef and event planner is beyond reproach. The beautiful Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman), a new lady-in-waiting at Court finds herself falling for Vatel's honest integrity, while trying to juggle sexual advances from both the King and the King's sleazy right-hand-man Lauzun (Tim Roth, inhabiting pretty much the same character and clothing that he did in "Rob Roy").
The ideas behind "Vatel" are quite interesting, as the title character struggles to maintain his dignity as a human being in a rigid social hierarchy that places him towards the bottom of the pecking order. Vatel feels that his genuine artistry and the elevated position that accompanies it make him impervious to the social order, and doesn't realise until it is too late that he is merely prostituting his talents to please the Court (a journey that is mirrored in a more literal way with the character of Anne de Montausier). Unfortunately, these good ideas are not supported by any kind of emotional involvement with the characters, which lessens the impact of the story and makes the ending feel abrupt and a little moralising.
Nominated for an Art Direction Academy Award, the film does look quite stunning. It captures ably the two worlds that "Vatel" straddles, both the lush gardens and spectacles seen by the Court and the gritty interiors of dirty crowded kitchens and back stages where the people toil to create the festivities. But for all that the film's appealing ideas and gorgeous visual presentation, "Vatel"'s perpetual distance and impersonal tone leave it unable to penetrate the viewer to make any impression at all.