A Chef in Love

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Nana Djordadze

REVIEWED: 06-20-97

Recent films such as Eat Drink Man Woman and Big Night have focused on our fascination with food, a subject that includes both the everyday and the exotic. "Eat to live, don't live to eat," runs the proverb; but true food artists know that a meal can be much more than minimal sustenance. The movies that celebrate food show us its luxurious, extravagant heights as well as its ordinary roots, both made memorable by the care of great cooks.

Among these movies, A Chef in Love, an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film last year, has some similarities to Like Water for Chocolate, which used groaning boards as the basis of legends and magic. But the film's director, Nana Djordjadz, has a confused agenda that undercuts her most potent ideas. When history overtakes fable in the movie's second act, the hero loses stature and the story loses momentum.

Photo by Ron Phillips.

The chef of the title is Pascal Ichak, a French gourmet who loves the beautiful Georgian princess Cecilia. Pierre Richard plays Pascal in a series of flashbacks, while an art curator and a food photographer in the present day translate the lovers' papers and slowly discover their story. Ichak is the author of a book on Georgian cuisine, and he has a superhuman sense for food and drink; in several scenes he performs heroic feats of aroma identification and imbibing. But the Communist revolution overtakes Georgia at last, and hordes of uniformed Leninist flacks overrun Pascal's French restaurant and fail to appreciate his artistry. Cecilia marries the volatile revolutionary leader, Zigmund, to save Pascal's life, while the chef toils for the Red Army and agonizes over the lousy food being cooked by tasteless boors in his beautiful kitchen.

Pascal and Cecilia are outsized figures in the movie's first third, roaming the countryside having culinary adventures, being interrupted at every turn by music and feasting. It's the stuff of rollicking tales, the kind families love to tell about their ancestors, and the episodes have more than a touch of fantasy. When he settles down in Tbilisi to open his restaurant, Pascal serves heads of state and famous aviators--storybook characters who fit neatly into the anecdotal structure of the flashbacks.

This structure persists after the Communist takeover, but the point of the anecdotes becomes much harder to figure out. Pascal seems beaten down and unable to explain why he doesn't flee back to France; Cecilia's marriage to Zigmund doesn't appear to alter her behavior at all. Food is served, but the loutish soldiers destroy the pleasure of the meal. Pascal writes down the "thousand and one recipes" of the original French title in an attic without so much as a hot plate. But the film doesn't take notice of his great feat of imagination: conjuring dishes with only his memories as ingredients.

Some revelations about Anton, the present-day reader of the letters, still remain for the movie's conclusion. The aura of greatness that surrounded Pascal and Cecilia is dispelled after the first hour, however, and the plot stagnates in a sketchy rendition of revolution. If the movie had told the story of a legendary chef reduced to mere humanity, it might have been poignant. Strangely, however, the ineffectual Pascal is still treated as if he were the hero of family stories--only he isn't doing anything.

The audience is left to ponder themes that remain largely unexplored: the misplaced egalitarian impulse of the revolutionaries, which leads them to mock the delicacies of the rich while unable to appreciate them; the "bait and switch" of Communism itself, prefigured in a suckling-pig scam run by Zigmund early in the film; and most of all, the promise of delicious food, simple and timeless, that renders every day a renewable gift. For long stretches, A Chef in Love seems to forget even this last idea as its characters wander through history. The tall tales of the movie's first hour are a savory appetizer, but the entree turns out to be unexpectedly bland.--Donna Bowman

--Donna Bowman

Full Length Reviews
A Chef in Love
A Chef in Love

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