There will always be a place in the hearts – and stomachs – of moviegoers for films about food. Whether it is an animated film like Ratatouille or a cult favourite like Tampopo, films about food seem to inspire all kinds of passions and loves along the way. Délicieux, directed by Eric Besnard and screening at this year’s AF French Film Festival, certainly focuses very tightly on traditional French cuisine. It is also carries along a sense of history, family drama, and romance. It is a broad, commercial work for certain, but it is also wonderfully satisfying to watch. Just remember to eat before entering the cinema.
Manceron (Grégory Gadebois) is a talented and arrogant cook employed by the rich and powerful Duke of Chamfort (Benjamin Lavernhe) in 18th century France. Cuisine is the domain of the aristocracy, and lavishly prepared banquets are a signifier of taste, civilization, and power. When Manceron’s dogged insistence on new dishes – and a refusal to apologise for them – sees him expelled from his master’s service, he and his son take over a provincial inn. It is there that a mysterious woman demanding to be his apprentice (Isabelle Carré) leads Manceron to transform the inn into an eating establishment where visitors can order different dishes from a menu and experience the very best cuisine 18th century France has to offer. Délicieux is the story of France’s first-ever restaurant.
It is wonderful to see Gadebois, so contemporary and weary in Anne Fontaine’s Night Shift (reviewed here), playing such a starkly different character in such a contrasting style of feature film. Manceron is deeply prideful, and wonderfully pompous, and much of the emotional heart of Délicieux comes from seeing him grow to understand what it is that truly matters to him when he loses the favour – and financial support – of the aristocracy. The film is being promoted as a comedy, but while it sparkles with moments of humour it really feels much more comfortable as a historical drama. The story also tends to grow darker as it goes, as the mysterious apprentice (charmingly played by Carré) reveals more of her identity and motivations.
The awful manner in which the French aristocracy behave is vividly played out, particularly via an early banquet scene in which their hypocrisy, pretension, and loathsome obsequiousness is brutally laid bare. Offhand references to starving citizens in Paris, and a growing resentment of the nation’s power brokers make it clear where the film’s back story is headed – as does the late 18th century setting – but Besnard keeps political matters largely in the background. Humour, romance, and French cooking are very much the focus of the film; everything else feels like seasoning.
It is such a glorious premise for a film, and Besnard manages to make it as tasty a confection as Manceron’s carefully baked and decorated desserts. Comfort films are as much a phenomenon as comfort foods, and Délicieux is a warm, hugely enjoyable confection indeed.
Délicieux is screening across Australia as part of the AF French Film Festival. Click here for more details on screening times and locations.