Humor is not generally thought to be one of the hallmarks of French culture. Not to say that every French film must be the work of an inscrutable auteur, layered with existential angst and cultural criticism while paying homage to Hollywood Westerns and noirs.
France is the birthplace of cinema, after all, so they can do whatever they want.
Le Chef, which screens at RiverRun on opening night, is a light comedy, as opposed to the dark variety. Some of the humor might be lost in translation for English-language audience, but it comes across as facile. Essentially, the jokes fall flat.
Like cinema, France is also known for its cuisine. And that’s more or less of the crux of the joke here. The venerated chef at Cargo Lagarde, a champion of hearty traditionalist fare, is being challenged by the new rage for gustatory minimalism — “molecular gastronomy” — as promoted by the new corporatist regime at his restaurant.
The battle is on. And yes, menu items such as “liquid nitrogen champagne,” “compression of fowl with udon noodles” and “phosphorescent radish mousse” are good for some laughs. So is the over-the-top demonstration of molecular gastronomy technique by consultant Juan Castella, played with weird aplomb by Santiago Segura, with duck feathers flying and steam emitting from the mouths of the tasters after what appears to be a chemistry experiment gone wrong.
But this isn’t Segura’s show. The storyline centers on Alexandre Lagarde, played by Jean Reno, the somewhat vain but goodhearted champion of traditionalism, and Jacky Bonnot, played by Michael Youn, who is passionate about food but temperamentally unsuited for employment. His obstinacy in speaking up for his convictions about food gives rise to the second running joke in the film: Jacky unilaterally changes patrons’ food orders and harasses them about their wine pairings, even going so far as to physically assault one of them. Hence, the first termination. Similarly, Jacky threatens to trash a delectable roast when Alexandre deigns to ruin it with a sprig of rosemary.
Beatrice, Jacky’s girlfriend, is expecting — and growing impatient with his peripatetic work patterns. The dialogue between Youn and Raphaëlle Agogué, who plays Beatrice, is flat and affectless. She adores his cooking but is exasperated by his lack of responsibility. He wants desperately to please her, but can’t help but make bad decisions. More jokes materialize as the exaltation of food and strong opinions about how it is best prepared eclipse the imperatives of the two protagonists’ respective quests — Jacky, to salvage his relationship with Beatrice, and Alexandre, to save his restaurant.
If that’s enough to keep you entertained for 84 minutes, have at it.
Le Chef screens at UNCSA Main Theatre on Friday at 7 p.m. and Hanesbrand Theatre on April 9 at 4 p.m.
— Jordan Green