When Vincent, the director of Haute Cuisine, learned that it would open the French Film Festival in Wellington tomorrow, he could see the funny side. "I hope it's not because we mention New Zealand," he jokes.
The reference to New Zealand is only brief, but it's important. Haute Cuisine is the story of Hortense Laborie, who, despite neither being a famous chef nor a restaurateur, is hired by the French president to be his personal chef at the Elysee Palace in Paris.
Laborie's uncomplicated style of French cooking reminds the ageing president of the meals his mother used to make him. But by hiring Laborie – played by high-profile French actress Catherine Frot – he upsets the head chef. Laborie is the first woman ever to cook at the palace. While trying to hold her ground she also looks for a way out and her plans include a truffle farm in New Zealand.
While the president – played by French novelist Jean D'Ormesson – is never named, Haute Cuisine is based on the true story of French cook Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch, hired by French president Francois Mitterand. Mazet-Delpeuch is a guest in Wellington tomorrow at the film's first screening.
Vincent says he first learned about Mazet-Delpeuch after co-writer Etienne Comar read about her in a newspaper article. It included the fact that after leaving the Elysee Palace, Delpeuch went as far away from Paris as possible – she ended up cooking at a French research station on an Antarctic island.
"I was interested in cooking and cuisine. When [I was] told this story I immediately saw [it as] a beautiful portrait of this woman. She has a strong personality [but] then after two years at the Elysee she left for this remote island. I thought 'wow, there is something there'," he says.
"But it is a funny paradigm. I decided to start [the film] in Antarctica first because the audience would expect something to happen first at the Elysee. I thought [it would] be an interesting confrontation between the two worlds."
The film, which when released in France was titled Les Saveurs Du Palais, includes some scenes actually shot at the Elysee, although Vincent says they had only a short window of three days to do so. "Just 10 days before [shooting] we didn't know whether we would get authorisation. We planned so that we would shoot while [former French president Nicolas] Sarkozy was going to meetings. We could only shoot if he wasn't at the Elysee."
Iceland makes a convincing stand-in for Antarctica, but it was still a tough location to film in, says Vincent. "The weather was horrible. We had six days to shoot there. The first three days were OK, but [then] there was a storm and we couldn't shoot. It was terrible and we could only shoot for three hours."
Much of the film rides on Frot's performance and she was involved very early on, even before the script had been finished. In preparation for the role she met Mazet-Delpeuch. "She's an extraordinary woman with a great temperament and personality. She's an adventurer. She is very similar to what we see in the movie," says Frot.
"It's also been an impressive opportunity for me to meet her. She stayed with me, in my mind, even when I was shooting."
But Frot says Vincent left her "totally free to build the role" of Laborie. There was no instruction that it resemble Mazet-Delpeuch, even though Laborie on screen does reflect the real-life inspiration, she says.
What Frot did rely on was Vincent's precise direction of all the cooking scenes. "It's not something that's so easy to do," she says. She did not know before filming how to cook the dishes her character creates in the film." "No, no, no – not really" she says, then laughs. "But I learned, of course I learned. And I learned one important thing. At the beginning, when you go to buy your produce – this is really important. With the produce I learned how to smell [it], how to feel [it to tell] what is good, to have the right addresses of where to buy."
Frot says she's now applied some of what she learned in making the film into her own cooking. But not to the same heights because Laborie's labour-intensive cooking was "exceptional". "I couldn't do that every day. But [picking] good produce – you can do that every day if you want."
Frot is also aware of an unexpected side-effect of watching Haute Cuisine. Before seeing the film I was warned to make sure I watched it on a full stomach. Instead I had a light lunch. By the end of the film my mouth was watering. All I could desire was eating one of the many dishes Laborie created on the screen.
Frot laughs. "Everybody in the street [says] 'We want to eat'."
Haute Cuisine screens at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington tomorrow, 6.30pm, as part of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival. It will also screen at the Paramount on March 3 (7.30pm), 8 (1pm), 11 (1.30pm) and 15 (6.30pm)
- The Dominion Post
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