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.
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.
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.
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.
Has Vatel worked up your appetite?