Sunday, July 27, 2014

Le Chef

Alternate Title:  The Professional (Chef)

One sentence synopsis:    A talented young chef tries to earn a place at a world-famous restaurant whose head chef is engaged in a heated battle with the owner.

Things Havoc liked: Three facts that none of you knew about Jean Réno:

1: Jean Réno's real name is Juan Moreno y Herrera-Jiménez.
2: Jean Réno is a Moroccan of Spanish descent.
3: In France, Jean Réno is best known for his comedies.

That's right, Jean Réno, one of the only French action stars ever accepted in the United States (Van Damme was Belgian, you plebeians), famous here for films such as The Professional, Ronin, Mission Impossible, or The Da Vinci Code, is well-known in France as a comedic actor (though to be sure his action work remains popular there too), generally playing a straight-man in comedies such as Les Visiteurs, Wasabi, Décalage Horaire, and Tais-Toi. I didn't even know this last one until recently, when it came time for me to venture into the wacky world of French comedy once more and see a movie with, distressingly enough, the same title as a Jon Favreau comedy I saw less than two months ago.

French cinema has a reputation for being impenetrable, and there are certainly movies that earn that designation (most things by Truffaut for instance), but then that's no different than if you go cherry-picking through American indie films (consider Mallick). The vast bulk of French films are like the vast bulk of films everywhere, common-denominator fare designed to appeal to the widest possible audience. This sort of thing, not the black and white films of women wearing roofing materials reciting Chinese poetry while strangling ducks, is more akin to France's standard, and proof of that is in the performances that Réno and his co-star, Michaël Youn. The two play a fairly standard game of straight man/funny man throughout the film, with a bit of traditional madcap French flair. Réno plays Alexandre Vauclair, a classical, Michelin-starred chef of a five-star haute-cuisine restaurant, whose inspiration is flagging under a conflict with his new-wave boss Stanislas Matter (Julien Boisselier). Youn, playing Jackie, is a talented young chef of the same school, in desperate need of a job and of greatness, who comes to the attention of Vauclair and is enlisted to help him ward off the conversion of the restaurant into a cutting edge Molecular Gastronomy house. This is the core of the film, and when the movie is concentrating on these elements, it's actually quite funny, particularly anything involving Jackie, Alexandre, and Jackie's three disciples from an old-folks home, Chang, Titi, and Moussa, all three of whom are terrible chefs dreaming of achieving excellence in at least some field. Along the way, various adventures and hijinx ensue, in the best broad-comedy traditions, including an interlude with Spanish molecular chef Juan, whose concoctions seem to resemble explosives more than lunch, and another, highly-non-PC incident where both chefs visit a competing molecular restaurant in... shall we say "disguise"? The very concept of molecular cuisine, with its infusions and foams and "ideas of" that resemble chemistry experiments more than they do food, lends itself well to broad comedy, and the movie's almost slapstick-y approach is nothing if not broad. If that's your thing, this movie should appeal just fine.

Things Havoc disliked: If it's not however...

French film comedy, like I mentioned above, is often broad, stock stuff, derived from commedia del'arte and traditional continental European comedic disciplines. I'd hesitate to call it unsophisticated, but films like this unavoidably start feeling that way when you compare them to the more modern types of British or American comedy. Part of that is the subtitles, which by necessity have to dampen down the complexity of what we're dealing with, but even if you speak French fluently, the exaggerated gestures, the slapstick, the broad one-stroke characters and their instantly-obvious plot complications, these things all speak to a moviegoing audience that simply does not see the breadth of film that others might.

Take Réno's daughter, for instance, a graduate student who is annoyed that her father does not consider her upcoming thesis defense to be sufficiently important. Réno is obsessed with his restaurant and his cooking, to the point where even he recognizes he is simply tired of it all, and wants to spend more time with his daughter in a lower stress environment. So when he encounters a lovely rustic restaurant in rural Bourgogne run by a beautiful (and single) hostess whom he immediately begins making eyes towards, and also a young, brilliant, up-and-coming chef in desperate need of a job, who enthusiastically worships him and his recipes and proposes helping him create a menu to retain the Michelin stars that he is in jeopardy of losing, there's not a lot of room for doubt as to how all this is going to be resolved. And yet the filmmakers seem to think there is, pouring vast amounts of, frankly, melodrama, into questions that anyone who has ever seen a movie before will already know the answers to. Youn has lied to his fiance about his job, and she is mad at him. Will they reconnect? The arrogant, smarmy owner of the restaurant waxes eloquently about how he can't wait for Réno to get his comeuppance so that he can fire him and all his staff and turn the restaurant into a chemistry lab. Will he succeed? It's the night of the big critics' taste test and the young phenom must lead the brigade to produce food like they've never done it before? Will he manage it? If you are burning to know the answers to these profound, unsolvable mysteries, then you must immediately see this film, for that is all it consists of. But if you've seen more than six films in the entirety of your life, then you may, like me, be left wondering how it is that the only people in the room unable to determine by the five-minute-mark the resolution to every problem in the film, were apparently the director, writers, and producers.

Final thoughts:   I've honestly not been trying to badmouth the entire genre of French comedies in this review, for they, like any genre, can be as layered and witty and complicated as anything you'll find in English. I could cite Les Visiteurs, Diner de Cons, Ridicule, Rabbi Jacob, or 2012's runner up for MOTY (Movie of the Year) Les Intouchables. But there is a strong subset of broad comedy at work in French films, and you've gotta like that in order to get anything out of Le Chef. I do, and so I found the movie charming and reasonably funny, if nothing more, but one of the masterpieces of the genre it ain't. If you're looking for a foreign film that isn't going to make you wish for the relative accessibility of a Jim Jarmush piece, or simply want to see Jean Réno do something other than kill people, this movie might do the trick. Otherwise, there's plenty of stupid comedies in English to be had this time of year. One of them is probably just as good as this one.

... probably.

Final Score:  6.5/10

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