With a film about food and cookery, a director can hardly fail. Whatever the deficiences of the script, the acting or camerawork, the subject has such an intrinsic attraction an audience will keep watching just to see the next dish.
Daniel Cohen’s The Chef is better than that – a slick French farce as predictable as clockwork, but still capable of making us laugh on cue.
The plot could have been put together from an instruction manual for wannabee screenwriters. Jacky Bonnat is a fanatic for fine cuisine who gets sacked from successive jobs because of his perfectionism. It is almost physically painful for him when a customer in a bistro orders the wrong wine with a meal.
Alexandre Lagarde is a celebrated French chef, with a three star restaurant and his own television program. His problem is that customers are becoming more fickle in their tastes, and the financiers behind his business are demanding a new approach – nothing less than la cuisine moleculaire!
Alexandre is horrified by the idea of embracing this modish combination of cooking and chemistry. His trendy young backer is bored by his traditionalism and determined to kill him off, but can only do so if the business loses one of its Michelin stars.
By circuitous means Alexandre meets Jacky and they conspire to save the restaurant. At the same time, Jacky tries to save his relationship with Béatrice, his long-suffering girlfriend who has watched him lose one job after another.
If this film were directed by Joel and Ethan Coen rather than Daniel Cohen, the Chef would lose the restaurant, Jacky would get dumped, and several other characters would be blown away with a shotgun. But because 99 percent of directors prefer to cater to audience expectations rather than confound them, you can pretty much guess the stunning denouement.
The Chef is a movie to savour for other reasons. The sight of French tough guy, Jean Reno, playing the master chef will be enough of an attraction for many people. Michaël Youn shows that he is fine comic actor in the role of Jacky. Raphaëlle Agogué has little to do as Béatrice except to look beautiful, grumpy and pregnant.
The best feature of this film is its piss-take on so-called molecular cuisine, made fashionable by Ferran Adria, the celebrity chef of el Bulli in Barcelona. This is a safe subject for satire because nothing could be more of an élite taste. Nothing could be more readily identified with the empty, avant-garde attitudes espoused by the newly rich, at least in the field of gastronomy.
Cohen’s master of the molecular arts is a sinister-looking Spaniard, by the name of Juan (Santiago Segura), who looks as if he would be more at home in a Jesus Franco film such as She Killed in Ecstasy.
A bizarre kitchen session is followed by an incognito visit to the restaurant of Cyril Boss (James Gerard), the bovver boy chef in line to take over Alexandre’s premises. At this point any pretence towards droll humour disappears as Alexandre and Jacky disguise themselves as the French version of a Japanese couple: Samurai hairstyle, his-and-hers kimonos, white pancake make-up.
I’d always imagined French cinema couldn’t be more caricatural to the Japanese than in Truffaut’s Domicile conjugal (AKA. Bed and Board), but I stand corrected.
Beyond the world of the film the last laugh, however, is with the Japs, who are now praised by the Michelin Guide for having the greatest restaurants in the world.
The Chef, France/Spain, rated M, 84 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 16, 2012