A CHEF IN LOVE (LES MILLE ET UNE RECETTES D'UN CUISINIER AMOUREUX) (Georgia-France-etc. 1996) ** 4/5
It is natural for France to have played a major role in the making of "Chef," since it has been the major co-producing force for movies from the former Soviet bloc. It is also the nation that, before and after the dissolution of the USSR, best showcased Georgian cinema. My all-time favorite festival, that of La Rochelle (France), some years ago devoted a huge portion of its program to Georgian films. These were accompanied by a large, lively and merry band of Georgian filmmakers who were not too different from some of the characters in "Chef. "
The Chef is Frenchman Pascal Ichac, played against type by the comic actor (also writer, director and producer) Pierre Richard, familiar from his roles in pictures such as "The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe,"" La Chevre," and "Les Comperes. " These are part of a large number of French comedies that Hollywood has been remaking in the 1980s and 1990s. In general the adaptations are much inferior to the originals. The latest is the unsuccessful "Father's Day" (1997), from "Les Comperes" of 1984.
Richard is almost unrecognizable in "Chef. " Hirsute, and with his usual naiveté replaced by wordly sophistication, showing all of his 62 years, he plays a jack-of-all-trades and master of many. He is a bon vivant, has been a roué, a parasite, a gigolo, an opera singer and, crucial to the film, a gourmet and master cook whose legacy is a celebrated book of recipes.
The movie is told in flashbacks of Ichac's adventures in Georgia during a few years following the Great War. The ancient kingdom of Georgia was, as per the Georgians, founded in antiquity by Jason and his Argonauts. Eventually dominated by Turks and Persians, then annexed to the Russian Empire in the 19th century, after the Soviet Revolution Georgia emerged as an independent state from 1918 to 1921.
En route to Tbilisi (a. k. a Tiflis), the capital, in a first-class train compartment world-traveler Ichac meets Princess Cecilia Abachidze, appealingly played by Nino Kirtadze. (Georgian names end in -dze, in -ani or in -vili -- as in Dzhugashvili , later changed to Stalin, or like Kalikashvili). Both Cecilia and Pascal are sophisticates, free souls and charmers. Pascal produces vintage wine out of his bags and a sumptuous, unbelievable buffet out of nowhere. Who can remain unimpressed?
Pascal could almost be the young lady's grandfather, but he is so lusty and interesting that instant electricity is generated. The two become lovers and go through colorful adventures.
Pascal's extraordinary palate and sense of smell allow him to concoct culinary masterpieces. One day, at the Opera, his uncanny olfactory abilities sniff out the gun-powder of a hidden bomb destined for Georgia's President. He saves the man's life, the two become fast friends. Pascal is allowed to open a restaurant in Tbilisi. Maniacally devoting his talents to international and something like New Georgian cuisine to it, Pascal makes of his "New Eldorado" a world Mecca for gourmets -- sometimes at the expense of time spent with Cecilia.
Even so, he is very much in love with her, as well as with gastronomy and life. Asked by the President why a restaurant in Georgia and not in a Western capital, Pascal simply states that he has fallen in love with the country. Well he might. Georgia is a small country with an immense variety of natural beauties. Its people are creative, artistic, have a lust for life, drink, eat, sing, dance and do everything with energy. (Perhaps it is the secret of their record longevity). They may also seem slightly mad. All this fits Pascal perfectly.
The short life of independent Georgia comes to an end when in 1921 the Red Army and Bolshevik apparatchiks swoop down and take over. The Georgians of today have always felt a totally separate identity from that of the Soviet Empire. They declared their sovereignty in 1989 and independence on April 9, 1991. Georgian cinema, before and after the break, has been a major and different entity within the Greater Russian system. In "Chef" the Bolshevik invasion becomes another opportunity for criticizing Soviet culture.
The invaders are shown as uncouth military, opportunists, bullies, barbarians or sexual deviants, although the caricatures do stop short of cliches. The fate of Cecilia, Pascal and Haute Cuisine becomes a tangle that I will not reveal
The movie was directed by Nana Djordjaze, who looks like her heroine Cecilia. Ms. Djordjaze came to prominence in 1986 when her "Robinsonada, Or My English Grandfather" won the Camera d'Or (for best first feature) at the Cannes Film Festival. Her husband, screenwriter-director Irakli Kvirikadze, did the script for "Chef. " His films are excellent, especially "The Swimmer" (1987) Grand Prix At The San Remo Festival.
"Chef" has a lot of originality, creativity, local color, humor, character-centered and historical details and first-rate production values. It also has a number of structural problems, mainly, like the Revolution, a lack of discipline.
The flashbacks from Paris-now to Georgia-then are a bit precious and lead to a convenient and rather ho-hum revelation. There is, however, the exquisite bonus of Micheline Presle, the star of "Devil in the Flesh" (1947). As Parisian Marcelle Ichac, the niece of Pascal, and a contemporary food photographer who cooks her own scrumptious culinary layouts, at age 74 Miss Presle is an incredibly radiant, vigorous beauty.
Overall the film is loosely episodic and often lacks clear points of view. There is a general vagueness as to its who-what-where-whens. Until the Reds invade, one is hardly conscious that a World War had occurred or that a major revolution had taken place in Russia.
At the risk of nitpicking, I believe that many of the automobiles used by the Red Army in 1921 are later models, even classic 1930s cars. On a basic level is the fact that in a movie celebrating food, one does not get a true sense of cuisine or follow the actual preparation of dishes. Pascal and his staff are mostly shown bustling about and throwing things around. There are no visual kitchen glories as in "Babette's Feast," "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman," or "Big Night. " We hear details of some of Ichac's 1001 recipes, but they are no substitute for sights that makes us salivate. The wider frame of love, life, politics, tragedies and the pursuit of happiness can be counter-productive to the "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die" thread.
All the same, in spite of faulty coherence and excessive to-and-fro-ing, the basic frame of the picture is an original, often fascinating experience. For gourmets of celluloid, i. e. connoisseurs, there is also a series of in-jokes, of tongue-in-cheek, esoteric filmic and historical references, as in the choice of names like Ichac, Lilli Lieftenstahl or Madame Kollontay. This work may not make it into the Pantheon of food movies but otherwise it is a very good addition to offbeat and to Georgian cinema.