Perhaps it is the magic of food--it can transcend its primal purpose
of nourishment to become an experience of sensual ecstasy--that
makes it so ripe for cinematic portrayal. Recently, Big Night
wowed audiences with its story of two restaurateur brothers staking
their fortune on one grandiose meal. The top grossing foreign
film of all time, Like Water for Chocolate, portrayed cooking
as a outlet for thwarted emotions. The Cook, the Thief, his
Wife and her Lover, directed by Peter Greenaway of recent
Pillow Book fame, used the culinary arts to tell a surreal
yet profoundly moving tragedy of love and vengeance. A Chef
in Love follows the tradition of using food as the poetic
symbol for a story of ambition, love and strife.
The titular character is Pascal Ichac, a truly renaissance man
who has been a gigolo, a world traveler, an opera singer and most
notably a cook. His love affair is told via flashback, when his
niece seeks out the son of his Georgian lover, Princess Cecilia
Abachidze. Georgia, a republic of the former Soviet Union, has
a long tradition of instability and insanity, particulary from
a literary point of view. (For reference, Greek mythology's Medea
traditionally hails from Georgia; in a fit of jealousy over her
husband's infidelity, she uses her powers as a sorceress to get
back at him by killing their own children.) In A Chef in Love,
Pascal and Cecilia adventure through Georgia until they settle
in the capital city of Tbilisi to open the restaurant of Pascal's
dreams, the New Eldorado.
Pascal and Cecilia's alliance remains, for the most part, romantically
unexplained. There is none of the American passion for analyzing
or "processing" their relationship; they are merely
wildly in love, and it is only until much later in their affair
that dissatisfaction and friction begin to occur. And the film
carries off the beginning of their relationship with a refreshing
aesthetic ease. Their affair is in the tradition of the grossly
overhyped The English Patient, but the characters' unexplained
love for each other is infinitely more believable. Pascal and
Cecilia simply enjoy each others' company, and the celebration
of their relationship continues through rural restaurants, the
national opera and other experiences.
Of course, as it is with all great romantic movies, we know trouble
is brewing. Soon after Pascal opens his restaurant, Cecilia becomes
disturbed by the time he dedicates to his art as a chef. The couple
becomes a victim of the times--the 1920s--when the communist revolution
reaches Georgia, throwing Pascal's chosen work into the reviled
category of bourgeoisie decadence.
The scenery of Georgia provides a stunning and varied backdrop
for the action of the film. Night trains, day trips, theaters
and mountains are all stunningly photographed, so that the scenes
are crisp and clear yet retain an almost antique look reflecting
the time period. The food that dominates the film is equally well
captured, from the squealing pigs of the countryside to the gourmet
cuisine of the city. French actor Pierre Richard and Georgian
Nino Kirtadze play the lovers with enthusiastic abandon; Richard
particularly has a vitality that makes it easy to see how a significantly
younger woman would fall in love with him.
A Chef in Love reaches a more profound philosophical level
toward the end of the film: When one is an artist such as Pascal,
how far should one go to remain true to the spirit of that art?
As Pascal loses his abilities to practice his cooking, he finds
hope in small forms of rebellion and communication with others.
But the film questions whether these small moments are enough
to sustain an artist, much less a lover. In the end, the audience
must be the judge, for the film serves up no easy answers--which
makes A Chef in Love a satisfying dish indeed.