Food in Films: Vatel’s Last Supper

14 Mar

For my Entremets and Petits Gateaux class, we were given the option of watching the 2000 Gerard Depardieu film Vatel for extra credit. If you like period dramas and lavish set and costume design, this might be one for you to Netflix, although it is not in the league of Impromptu, or Dangerous Liaisons or the Madness of King George. What follows is the text of the review I wrote for class. Warning: this review contains spoilers. Stay tuned for future Food in Film reviews.

The 2000 film Vatel, starring Gerard Depardieu and Uma Thurman, is based on the historical visit of the Sun King Louis XIV  to the Prince de Conde’s home, Chateau de Chantilly. The Prince de Conde, who was heavily in debt at the time, hosted the King in hopes of obtaining the commission of General of the French army in an impending war with the Dutch. Key to his bid for the commission was his master steward, Francois Vatel—indeed a master of ceremonies and worker of miracles with both fish and loaves and all things in between—who he relied on to produce unrivaled entertainment for the King and his epicurean court. According to the historical record, Vatel killed himself toward the end of the festivities out of a sense of disgrace when he believed the fish he had ordered to serve the court did not arrive on time for the planned banquet. In the film Vatel, the master steward sacrifices himself upon realizing that he is a man of honor in an otherwise dishonorable world— indeed a pawn who can be played at the whim of both his master, the Prince, and the Sun King .

As the Sun King arrives with his debauched court to Chantilly, the film follows Vatel through his litany of preparations for the planned festivities. Vatel in the beginning is an invincible and undaunted magician/choreographer directing his kitchen and theatrical minions. Challenges slide like water off his back. When he is faced with“addled” eggs, he simply invents crème Chantilly from whipped cream and sugar. He cuts melons in the “Indian” fashion to make up for shattered glass lanterns. For the finale of the visit, he is planning a feast on “a sea of ice,” which he has “forbidden to melt.”

Vatel is so hyper-capable and unfazed by the arrival of the 5,000 courtiers, that one begins to believe that the master steward does have the power to control even nature. This is in marked contrast to the Sun King himself, who can’t even go to the bathroom without ample assistance. Indeed at one point, Vatel tells the new object of his admiration, the Queen’s lady-in-waiting Madame de Montausier, that “it is no small thing to please a king” and that the success or failure of his endeavors on behalf of the Prince could shape the “destiny of France.”  When Vatel makes this assertion, however, one does not get the sense that he is being prideful or boastful; but rather, that in the best case scenario, he simply speaks the truth, and in the worst case scenario, he is a little naïve.

One of the most breath-taking moments in the film is when the lecherous Marquis de Lauzan commissions a work of “fruit and flowers in the color of flesh and blood” to be sent to Madame de Montausier. Vatel has his so-called “people” craft beautiful and life-like pulled and blown sugar flowers and fruits, which we see him arrange with a deft touch.

Madame de Montausier rejects the more lavish arrangement, which the Marquis then recycles by giving to another woman of the court. Later, Vatel sends his own gift, a more simplified but just as stunning sugar vase with a few delicate pink roses. Madame de Montausier’s servant accidentally drops the gift, which she mistakenly believed was real until she sees the flowers shatter.

In actuality, it is Vatel’s own destiny that is decided during the course of the short visit. Like his beloved pet parrots that are chained by their legs and then sacrificed by Vatel to heal his employer’s gout, Vatel has an awakening and realizes that he is not truly “free. He and Madame de Montausier are both subject to the whims and fancies of their respective masters. In the film’s most critical scene, we see Vatel’s heart break when Madame de Montausier reveals that Vatel was wagered like “a hound from his kennels” during a card game between the Prince and the King, and that she herself must submit to the advances of the Marquis in order to save Vatel from possible imprisonment.

Rather than submit and work at Versailles, Vatel chooses to commit suicide by stabbing himself with a sword. Although I am not Christian (so I don’t pretend to be an authority on the religion), it occurred to me upon reflecting on the film that it may be an allegory for the Last Supper and the sacrifices of Christ. Depardieu’s Vatel is Christ-like on a number of levels. First, there is his concern for all of “his people” (including the young kitchen boy whom the Prince’s brother fancied and the groomsman who was killed during the festivities). Likewise, the film version of Vatel is a maker of miracles who transforms less into more (e.g., using the mushrooms to fill the meat pies when there is not enough meat for the fillings). The vivid images of fish and loaves featured in the film are a powerful allusion to one of Christ’s great miracles. Additionally, there are both Vatel’s healing powers and sacrifices. When the thrushes needed for the Prince’s gout treatment don’t arrive, Vatel uncomplainingly sacrifices his own parrots and their hearts and blood are used to rub on the Prince’s feet. Even the manner in which Vatel is betrayed—over a card game—harkens to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Finally, there is Vatel’s death on his own terms. In the note that he leaves for Madame de Montausier, we see him inspiring the Mary Magdalene figure of the movie—a type of courtesan with a “good heart— to seek a better life in a place where the cherry trees flavor the wine.

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