Recently a film professor friend was visiting from the U.K., and spied a copy of Roland Joffé’s 2000 film “Vatel” sitting atop the DVD player, waiting to be watched. Upon examining the very impressive cast list, which includes Gerard Depardieu, Uma Thurman, Tim Roth, Julian Glover, and Julian Sands, he remarked, “I’m surprised I have never heard of this.” When I finally got round to viewing it this past weekend, I realized that his surprise was not warranted, for “Vatel” is ultimately something of a mess – and indeed, something its subject matter probably could not have tolerated.
The film is partially based on the life of François Vatel, a perfectionist French chef and master of ceremonies of the 17th century who became legendary in his own time for the extravagance of the parties he threw on behalf of his employers. Vatel first achieved recognition working for the doomed Nicolas Fouquet at the latter’s 1661 opening of his Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, an overly-sumptuous residence which provided some of the inspiration for the Sun King’s later constructions at Versailles. After Fouquet’s imprisonment Vatel went to work for Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé and cousin to Louis XIV. The film is set during a three-day visit which the King paid to his cousin in April 1671.
Somewhat reminiscent of films like “Ridicule” and “Dangerous Liasons”, both of which are set a century later, “Vatel” is marked by carefully researched historical set and costume design, as well as several scenes in which vocal/chamber music performances contemporary to the period are shown. The sheer extravagant decadence is both overwhelming and, frankly, off-putting. Joffé allows us to enjoy the visual feasts presented on screen, but only to a point; he wants us to be very much aware of the human costs suffered by ordinary people in order to stage such outlandish indulgences of gluttony, lust, and vanity. In one sequence for example, displays of fireworks over an artificial lake and a singer born aloft riding a golden chariot to the delight of the dinner guests are juxtaposed with the horrific maiming and death of a groomsman behind the scenes, who tries to keep a jumpy horse from ruining the entertainment.
This is not the end of the abuse on display, however. Farmers and purveyors are treated with condescension when they ask, reasonably, to be paid for the goods and services they have provided. The ladies-in-waiting are made to play a kind of repulsive hopscotch, changing positions at the dinner or cards table depending on their preference in the King’s bed chamber. One of the little boys from the kitchens is singled out by the King’s brother to become his bedroom plaything. Beloved pets are quite literally sacrificed for the sake of overindulgent symptoms of gout. And Vatel himself is ultimately gambled and lost by his master to the King in a card game.
Through all of this Vatel remains himself, a kind of steady bulwark of both genius and humanity against the rushing forces of flippancy and cruelty. He falls in love with the ethereal blonde Anne de Montausier, a newcomer to court, whom the King has singled out for his latest affections, and who is also prized by the sniveling but dangerous Marquis de Lazun. Had this been anyone else’s story, we could simply have left things at that. Vatel, the commoner, would have had an unrequited love, perhaps a one-night dalliance, with de Montausier, and that would have been it. Unfortunately, that is not what actually happened.
History tells us that on the third day of the King’s visit, upon learning that the fish he had ordered for dinner was either delayed or not coming, Vatel committed suicide. The redoubtable Madame de Sévigné, in one of her many brilliant letters, recounted this story, which she heard second-hand, in a letter to her daughter. Such an act would fit perfectly with the narcissistic atmosphere of the Sun King’s court, and certainly better than the notion that Vatel was either some kind of pre-Rousseau standing up for the rights of the individual, or that he killed himself over an unobtainable romance with a noblewoman.
Joffé leads us through a modernist-tinted looking glass where, in a laudable but misguided attempt to provide his subject with more depth, we see a different Vatel than the man he almost certainly was. The truth is, as is true of most Bourbon courts, the court of Louis XIV was about as shallow and poisonous a bunch of vipers as one could imagine, and Vatel fit into it perfectly. While it may be dissatisfying to some that Vatel cannot be seen as some sort of egalitarian genius, forced by circumstance to work for the upper classes, to construct some kind of unevenly yoked romance between him and a figure representing the role of upper class women in the 17th century is simply ridiculous. Perhaps this is why the film was such a colossal box office disaster, and nearly bankrupted the company that made it.
Certainly “Vatel” is worth a look, gentle reader, if you are curious at all about life in 17th century France at the highest levels of society. Unfortunately, however appealing one might find the half-baked plots of individual liberty and inter-caste dating, the reality was something very different. My best advice to you is: take the film for what it is, enjoy the show, despite the adultery, the pederasty, and so on, and ignore the rest.