Costume movies and historic dramas are always popular and this year is no exception. For example, today I could go to my favorite cinema in town and choose among Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, and Marc Dugain’s L’échange des princesses. Instead, I decided to watch a 2000 film on DVD: Vatel, directed by Roland Joffé and with a high-profile cast including Gérard Depardieu, Uma Thurman and Tim Roth. I didn’t fall asleep, but I almost did. Why?
Vatel tells the true story of the last days of François Vatel (Gérard Depardieu), the master of ceremonies working for the Prince of Condé (Julian Glover). It seems that in 1671 the king of France, no less than the Sun King (Roi Soleil) Louis XIV (Julian Sands), decided to visit the prince to ask him to be a general in an imminent war against the Dutch. The Sun King did not travel light (he didn’t hunt orcs!), so all of a sudden two thousand people arrive at the Prince’s estate with the intention of staying for three days! As a result, the master of ceremonies Vatel must organize Lucullian banquets and also entertaining events for the court of the king. Needless to say, stress becomes unbearable for the poor inventor of the Chantilly cream (Mr. Vatel really invented that). So unbearable that he will eventually commit suicide.
The film reports these facts accurately and the screenplay limits itself to imagining dialogues and plausible situations with which to illustrate the last dramatic days of poor Vatel. Everything is done in a competent way: the costumes, the sets, the soundtrack, the acting, the direction never overdoing it… in short, nothing to write home about. It seems that Joffé focused on the form but not on the substance. There’s no interesting story to tell, there are no memorable scenes, and the affair between Vatel and Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman) is not enough. And the usual satire on 17th-century French nobles deciding about wars and taxes without the slightest concern for their people cannot save the movie either (for example, see Dangerous liaisons, the 1988 film directed by Stephen Frears) .
So, do I recommend watching Vatel? Honestly, no, I don’t. If you are a fan of Gérard Depardieu I think it’s his last noteworthy of the last twenty years, so you may want to watch it: his performance is convincing and the film is centered on him. But unfortunately it seems to me that overall the film offers very little. Ciao!