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Smart casting elevates the entertaining Haute Cuisine

Over time, French president François Mitterrand grew weary of the fancy foods being dished up by his chefs, and so it came to pass that a little-known provincial cook was invited, in the late 1980s, to take over the president's kitchen. In Haute Cuisine, a diverting, fictionalized version of the story, Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot) is stunned by the offer, but quickly rises to the challenge set forth by Mitterrand (87-year-old newcomer Jean d'Ormesson, who is marvelous): "If you cook for me like my grandmother cooked for me, I'll be perfectly happy." Writer-director Christian Vincent and co-writer Étienne Comar, aided by Frot's quiet intensity, imbue Hortense's quest to pull off culinary miracles with an urgency that's almost absurdly compelling — and all the more entertaining for it. The film is intercut with sequences depicting Hortense's decidedly unglamorous post-palace life, when she became the cook for dozens of men on an Antarctic science expedition. The juxtaposition of environments is interesting, but, as if scrambling to draw tears from an unsentimental main character, Vincent overplays the men's long, emotional goodbye to the retiring Hortense. It's a slight fumble in an otherwise sleek, charming little movie that may do wonders for the truffle market.

 
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