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Saturday, Oct. 7, 2000


A feast of the senses fit for the king

Oh no, the King's coming to dinner. Thus begins "Vatel," the latest film by Roland Joffe which documents three days in the castle of one Prince de Conde, who had fallen slightly out of favor with "Sun King" Louis Quatorze. An opportunity to redeem himself and land a military appointment comes in the form of an announcement that Louis and 500 courtiers feel like coming down to the country for some peace and quiet.

"Don't go out of your way to welcome me," writes Louis to Conde. "I only want the simple pleasures of the countryside." Not being such a fool as to take these words at face value, Conde instructs his master steward Francois Vatel to do all that is humanly possible in the way of wining, dining and entertainment. To please the king, Vatel deploys hundreds of staff and tons of foodstuffs (the bill comes to around $30 billion). Known in France as one of the greatest chef/stewards ever to have lived, Vatel is resurrected onscreen by Joffe as a proud, tough bon vivant who sought and served the pleasures of life on his own terms.

Joffe, whose 25-year career is punctuated by such grand-scale works as "The Killing Fields," "City of Joy" and "The Scarlet Letter," is no stranger to working with a huge crew and budget to match, an ambitious storyline and a glitzy cast. It seems that he and Vatel have a lot in common.

"It struck me right away that Vatel's banquet is very much like filmmaking. All the money, the labor, the time -- all for a project that has at its heart the desire to impress and astonish. And [films and banquets] are both consumed so quickly," said the director, who was in Tokyo last week to promote this work.

Accordingly, Joffe's take on Vatel is one of insight and sympathy. Seeing Gerard Depardieu as "a perfect fit" for the role, Joffe proceeded to draw Vatel as an attractive combination of a modern CEO, medieval artisan and brilliant artist who would have shone in any age. That the setting happened to be 17th-century France, where one's origin determined one's destiny, was unfortunate. Vatel was a commoner's son, then later a pa^tissiere's apprentice. Though gifted and skilled, his lot from beginning to end was to serve the aristocracy.

Joffe, however, refrained from straightforward social criticism that would raise eyebrows among his fans.

"I didn't want to draw the French court as the privileged, ignorant buffoons that so many stories make out," Joffe explained. "I think there was a lot more going on.

Louis, in Joffe's view was a brilliant social architect.

"It is largely due to his strategies that France became a unified nation," Joffe said, "founding a culture that still defines it today. He gave the nation a national identity, stopped the landowners from internal skirmishes and took the concept of power away from violence and terror. Instead, he based it on seduction."

Indeed, seduction is the underlying theme here -- a subtle and refined form of seduction that was honed by Louis and passed on to his court as both amusement and survival tactic. To be seduced was to surrender one's power; to seduce successfully was a way up the ladder. Consequently, court life turned into a relentless matching of wits. Louis was the greatest seducer of all, moving his mistresses and princes like pawns, steadily increasing his hold over them.

"He was a brilliant politician," said Joffe. "He elevated power to an art form. But by all accounts his tastes were simple. His favorite dish was boiled peas [which he pops elegantly in his mouth during the movie]. Viewers will notice that for all the frantic preparations by Vatel, there are no scenes showing excessive portions of food. Certainly there is no gluttony. Everything was refined and harmonious. I wanted to stress that."

"Vatel" is Joffe's third period drama, but the director said he's not really interested in "re-creating history, detail by detail" and added, "costumes are difficult to work with. They get in the way of telling the story."

To avoid complications and also because he felt that "Vatel" was very much a modern story, Joffe asked costume designer Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle to work out wardrobes based on the simple lines and drapes of a kimono. "You peel away one layer only to find the next and the next," he explained. "[The kimono's] elusive mystery is what power is about."

It is a streamlined and sophisticated French court that Joffe holds up for the world, and a very subtle form of cinematic extravaganza.

"Vatel" opens Nov. 4 at Bunkamura's Le Cinema in Shibuya.

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