Food, Fantasy, and Vatel

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Many lavishly produced historical costume movies are about larger-than-life figures, whether real or fictional, dealing with grand passions and political forces. But sometimes, a huge swanky production has a subtle sweet story at its heart. That’s what Vatel (2000) ends up as — a movie that looks like an epic tale of Louis the Sun King, all razzle-dazzle with sumptuous silks and mocking dandies and bed-hopping mistresses. But inside, it’s really about a wistful cook who just wants to create ephemeral food art in order to connect with the people around him.

Vatel (2000)

Gérard Depardieu plays Vatel, the chief steward, cook, and can-do-everything man for the Prince de Condé (played by Julian Glover) in 1671. Condé needs to impress Louis XIV (Julian Sands), and Vatel is tasked with putting on the party to end all parties. Louis and his court are venial, petty, and demanding in the extreme, and Vatel meets their requests with grace and yet not total subservience. He knows his place in the class structure, but he believes in honor, love, and art in ways these pampered aristocrats can’t fathom. Vatel’s principles connect with another lonely figure, Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman), one of the queen’s ladies in waiting and a new favorite with the king. It won’t end well for either of them.

Vatel (2000), Anne de Montausier & Vatel

 

Costumes in Vatel

This part of the 17th century can be challenging to costume because much of the visual documentation — that is, the artwork — is allegorical and stylized. “Posing gowns” were the standard for elite women’s portraiture, giving a feeling of relaxed opulence. This is particularly seen in English court paintings by Sir Peter Lely of the mistresses of Charles II and the various French artists who painted Louis XIV and his many mistresses. Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle, who designed the costumes for Vatel, has captured the essence of that stylized opulence in the gowns she created for this movie. They may not be strictly historically accurate (which would have a more fitted structure), but the use of jewel tones and languid silks, especially on Uma Thurman’s character, evoke the 17th-century artwork.

Madame de Montespan, second half of 17th c., painter unknown, Wikipedia.

Madame de Montespan, second half of 17th c., painter unknown, Wikipedia.

Marquise de Sévigné, 1665, by Claude Lefèbvre

Marquise de Sévigné, 1665, by Claude Lefèbvre, Wikipedia.

Élisabeth Marguerite d'Orléans, 1672, by Henri Gascar,

Élisabeth Marguerite d’Orléans, 1672, by Henri Gascar, Wikipedia.

Woman's bodice, 1670-1690, Italian, V&A Museum.

Woman’s bodice, 1670-1690, Italian, V&A Museum.

Vatel (2000)

Hard to get a decent full-length view of the court ladies’ gowns, but this shows how they’re fluid and relatively unfitted for the era.

Vatel (2000), Anne de Montausier

Most of her dresses follow this style — laced-front (corset?) undergown with sheer chemise and long open robe in silk or velvet (or both, as here).

Vatel (2000), Anne de Montausier

Better view of Thurman’s blue gown. Also, Tim Roth’s character is trying to get into her bed.

Vatel (2000), Anne de Montausier

Same gown style, in mauve-taupe with green and yellow accents — can see a front-laced corset shape more clearly.

Vatel (2000), Anne de Montausier

Well, it started on the shoulders…

Vatel (2000), Anne de Montausier

This is an odd gown style that seems like the designer was REALLY riffing off those allegorical draperies.

Vatel (2000), Anne de Montausier

Extravagant period parasols go perfectly with the costumes.

Vatel (2000), Anne de Montausier

Uma Thurman’s character is like a bird in a gilded cage. Get it? GET IT?

Vatel (2000), Maria Theresa of Spain

Maria Theresa of Spain, queen consort of France, is given the hairstyle seen in the Diego Velázquez paintings from her childhood to show how different she is than the languid, sexually amoral French court.

Louis XIV, King of France, 1670s, after Claude Lefèbvre

Louis XIV, King of France, 1670s, after Claude Lefèbvre, Wikipedia.

Vatel (2000), Louis XIV, King of France

The King of France stands out in vivid red.

Vatel (2000)

Much wigs. Very fat-bottomed. Wow.

 

Food in Vatel

Being the story of a chef, the food plays as big a role as the costumes. Vatel is an artist in sugar paste and ice and bread, and he creates a new fantasy spectacle for the court each day that combines music, visuals, and tastes unlike anything this jaded audience has seen. He also makes exquisite, ephemeral food creations as lover’s gifts. The film shows all of this gloriously, and the colors play beautifully between the food, sets, and costumes. Even if the movie’s story doesn’t engage you, it’s really delicious to look at.

Vatel (2000), Vatel in the kitchens

Training up the next generation of kitchen slaves.

Vatel (2000), inside the kitchens

The hard work behind the party.

Vatel (2000), Vatel & Conde

Vatel explains to his boss, Prince de Condé, how Neptune will rise from the sea in the middle of dinner on day two. Or something.

Vatel (2000), fountains

On the set.

Vatel (2000), fountains

The fountains go crazy.

Vatel (2000)

The Marquis de Lauzun (Tim Roth) is not impressed by Vatel’s fancy food gift.

Vatel (2000), Vatel glazing fruit

Glazing fruit, as you do.

Vatel (2000), Vatel's bread sculpture

Nobody gives a shit if this bread sculpture is gluten free.

Vatel (2000), Vatel spins sugar

He can spin sugar into a crystal vase. What did you do today?

Vatel (2000),

Vatel sweats the details.

 

Has Vatel worked up your appetite?

 

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

17 Responses

  1. Kristen McDermott

    One of my very favorite films, with a rare example of an accurately-staged 17th c. court masque (as compared to the pageanty one in Restoration or the hallucinatory one in Prospero’s Books). Thanks for reminding me to re-watch this!

    Reply
  2. Karen

    My other love…food movies. I have owned this one for some time and re-watch from time to time, both for the food and for the costuming…love it! You might watch Babette’s Feast for another historical food/costume movie which takes place int he 19th century. Not lavish by any stretch but worthy of a look, especially for the feast.

    Reply
  3. Susan Pola

    Why does the table laden with food captioned ‘the hard work behind the party’remind me of Hogwarts at Christmas? ‘Food, glorious food’ looks so delicious. I’m lucky to be eating a late lunch.
    But seriously, your post reminded me of how enjoyable the movie is. I plan on watching it again.
    Point wasn’t the princess in Velasquez painting e Las Meninas a blonde?

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yep! Maria Theresa of Spain was blonde, but movies have to make Spanish ppl dark haired bec. they think audiences won’t get it otherwise, UGH. See also, Catherine of Aragon.

      Reply
      • Clara

        Actually,this is not the same as the princess in “Las Meninas” (That would be Margarita Teresa) but her older half-sister (only surviving child of Philip IV’s first marriage, and coincidentally double-cousin of Louis XIV himself).
        (Though really, as a Spanish person myself, I hate it when they go the route of Spanish=Dark haired. So I join in the complaints.)

        Reply
          • Clara

            My apologies, I was trying to reply to Susan, since she was the one who mentioned Las Meninas. (Guess I shouldn’t approach a computer without glasses *facepalm*)
            But you linked to the right paintings and yep. She’s blonde. Like all her family (at least from her father’s side, which is the one I know better, and yet the one whose most famous members are almost always depicted with dark hair *sighs*)
            Again, sorry for the confusion XS

            Reply
  4. Nit-Picking Badger

    I also adore the visuals the court masque in Vatel, and all the food sculpture is lovely. However I cannot forgive the film of using Rameau and Handel for all of the music. Screamingly annoying. Why? 18th century music! And very well-known music at that
    Would it really have been the difficult to use snippets of Lully or similar? I think there’s a tiny piece by Colonna which is period-correct but location-wrong (he’s central Italy, and was not played at the French court).
    Grrrrr. Terribly wrong music, with no effort made whatsoever. It’s like grommets and back-lacing for me.

    Reply
  5. Willow and Thatch

    Vatel is one of the films i can re-watch every couple years and feel like it is new to me again. With so many visuals going on there is always something I haven’t noticed before.

    Reply
  6. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    Oh, those bloody posing gowns. When I was a kid starting out with learning about fashion history I thought the late 17th and early 18th century women went around desperately clinging taffeta parachutes to their bosoms lest all their clothes suddenly drop off.

    To this day I’ve got a long lasting dislike and distrust of a posing gown. Not least after discovering how fabulous manteaux are….

    Reply
  7. A Little Bit of Bad Taste

    I actually love posing gowns myself… I also think some of Uma’s off the shoulder, droopy gowns may be inspired by House of Worth Edwardian gowns…odd but seems to be the case

    Reply

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