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Saturday, Oct. 28, 2000


Mother of all dinner parties

In a perfect world, there would be no such things as dinner parties. People would come over, throw some frozen pizza in the microwave and (this is important) bring their own paper plates. B.Y.O.B.would be the norm and afterward they'd offer to vacuum the rug before exiting gracefully.

What's the point of dinner parties anyway? To make someone slave away in the kitchen so that a few others can enjoy themselves? One of my girlfriends swore she'd slit her wrists before setting the table for 12. For people like her, and the millions out there who think entertainment should be kept within the confines of a circus tent or theater (I know you're out there folks, better come clean), "Vatel" is a film to remember.

Directed by Roland Joffe ("The Killing Fields," "Scarlet Letter"), "Vatel" spans three days in the life of master steward Francois Vatel (Gerard Depardieu), whose mission it was to produce, direct and engineer a banquet for Louis XIV (Julian Sands). Also known as the "Sun King," Louis was a man so used to being wined and dined that to satisfy him was the biggest challenge of Vatel's career. So jaded was His Highness that his favorite dish was boiled peas, nestled in a silver goblet.

At the time, Vatel was in the service of Prince de Conde (Julian Glover), who had fallen out of favor with Louis and needed a fabulous dinner to get things back on their political track. "Everything is in your hands," he tells Vatel. "Go for it, sock it to him right in the gut." Actually I made that up. He couches it more elegantly, but the meaning is the same. What can Vatel do but go without sleep for the next two weeks and work like a galley slave to pull the thing off?

Conde is crippled with debts and his castle is barely large enough to accommodate the King and 500 courtiers (yeah, that's small), but he is determined to show them a good time. He gives Vatel carte blanche and pours the equivalent of $30 billion into this single project. Creditors pound at his door even as he is welcoming his guests with French graciousness. Not surprisingly, his blood pressure mounts, his gout starts acting up and he is groaning with pain through most of the film. All this so he could put a smile on the King's face.

"Vatel" shows Joffe in a subtle, subdued mood. The director, who has not hesitated to stress, underscore and underline in red his anti-establishment sentiments, reins himself in to create a world defined by nuance rather than principle. And though there is plenty in the material that begs for comedic (and contemptuous) treatment, Joffe never goes for the bait and keeps to his tone of refined dignity. There is no gluttony, no excessive merrymaking. Instead, the banquet reveals that the courtiers are just as restricted in their movements and manipulated into labor as Vatel and his staff. And so for all the effort and splendor of the affair, no one really seems to have a good time. This, of course, is at the heart of the act of dining entertainment: There are no winners.

Vatel divides the three-day banquet into different themes: On the first day, he serves fruits. On the second day, he provides game birds and meats. On the last day, he calls in the most gifted sculptors to make figurines from solid blocks of ice (in midsummer) and hires a dozen carriages to bring in a huge supply of fish and other seafoods from Marseille.

In the meantime, he's barking orders in the kitchen, tasting sauces, supervising the various performances, fireworks, etc. in a massive effort to avoid the Royal Yawn. During the rare intervals that he can keep still, he's peering out at the tables with a telescope, picking out the guests who need new napkins or fresh glasses of water. Really, one feels like slitting one's wrists on his behalf.

But "Vatel" is not just about the banquet and the enormity of the labor that went into it. The drama that unfolds against the flowers and tablecloths is just as fascinating, which reminds me of my grandmother's dictum that full stomachs eventually lead to intrigue and troublemaking. The courtiers hold verbal jousting matches, Louis is intent on moving his Princes and Marquis around like pawns. And despite his 23-hour working day, Vatel has a brief fling with one of the ladies-in-waiting (Uma Thurman), who in her turn uses him in a power play of her own.

Peel away the costumes, the wigs, the huge stone castle and what remains is a distinctly modern tale. "Vatel" speaks to anyone who has ever attended a business dinner or taken clients out for golf -- not to mention each and every one of us who has ever thrown a dinner party and had to spend days recuperating.

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

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