If you love France and food, separately or in combination, you will almost certainly forgive “Haute Cuisine” for being average as a movie. If so, go ahead and raise that rating to four stars; ignore the workmanlike filmmaking, the tedious score, the near-total absence of dramatic conflict. Just concentrate on the dishes being plated in all their big-screen splendor — sweet-and-sour duck with sarlat potatoes! cockleshells steamed in wine! Rochefort jonchée! — and make sure you have dinner reservations afterward.
“Haute Cuisine” fictionalizes the story of Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch, a proponent of simple French country cooking who served as personal chef to President François Mitterrand from 1988 to 1990. (Maybe this is a little like hiring Paula Deen to cook for Jimmy Carter. Then again, maybe not.) In the film, Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot) is whisked by limo from her farm in the Perigord region to the Élysée Palace, where she is presented with a small, comfortable kitchen and one earnest young pastry chef, Nicolas (Arthur Dupont).
Down the hall is the official state kitchen, with 24 cooks overseen by the porcine head chef Monsieur Lepiq (Brice Fournier). It serves 70,000 meals a year, all of them representing state-of-the-art gastronomy, but the president wants something different: “Cuisine de ma mere” — the food of my mother. We’d call it comfort food, and, lord, what comfort it offers.
Frot is very good at making her character an indomitable force for hearty eating, and as tough as Hortense is with the rest of the palace staff, she unbends when she cooks — the dishes bring out her sensuousness. Her interactions with the president (played by the 87-year-old French writer Jean d’Ormesson, who looks not a blessed thing like the actual Mitterrand) are charming interactions in which politics melt away as the two discuss antique cookbooks and pastries with names like Grandmere’s Saint-Honore.
“Haute Cuisine” — the French title, “Les Saveurs du Palais,” has a nice untranslatable pun on palace/palate — ties neatly into the current trend for locally sourced food organically grown. Hortense forgoes the palace suppliers for the corner greenmarket, creates sumptuous meals from at-hand ingredients a la Alice Waters, and brings in mushrooms and truffles from her home district. “I like things to come from somewhere,” she says briskly.
And that’s pretty much all there is to the movie: a celebration of a very nice lady and her food. “Babette’s Feast” it’s not. Director Christian Vincent does what he can to pump up “Haute Cuisine” with drama, any drama, but the showdown with Lepiq never really happens and the film’s framing scenes in an Antarctic research station — where Laborie worked in happy anonymity after leaving the palace — steadfastly refuse to come to a point. On the other hand, whenever the chef unveils a steaming dish of cabbage stuffed with salmon, that may be the only drama you need. “Haute Cuisine” proves the limits of cinema: It’s a movie that needs Taste-o-Vision.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.