Vatel (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna
thumbs held horizontal. We both respected the movie's strengths, but
found it disappointing in other ways. I think both thumbs are starting
to point upward, since we both enjoyed the film on balance.
Tuna's comments in white
|Vatel (2000) is a costume
period piece set during the reign of Louis XIV, and centers around a
royal visit to the estate of the Prince de Condé. The express purpose
is for his majesty and the entire court and their pets to enjoy the
country, but the real reason is to evaluate the prince as a possible
general in the upcoming war with the Dutch. This would return the
prince to favor with the crown, and allow the prince to repay all his
debts from the royal pocketbook. The task of dazzling his majesty
falls on the chief steward, Vatel (Gérard Depardieu). The newest
woman at court, played by Uma Thurman catches the eye of Vatel, and he
captures her with kindness and talent.
Costume period pieces are not my favorite genre, but I enjoyed this one, especially because it looked so good. Costumes, set decoration/art direction and photography were superb, as was the transfer. It was nominated for Best art direction by the Academy. The film is also highly anti-establishment, poking fun at all the royals. Grading is difficult. As a period piece, it doesn't hold up well. The humor, for the most part, is too low-key for the average viewer, but it looks too good to award less than a C.
comments in yellow
They had something pretty good going here, but they couldn't quite deliver it.
Vatel is played by Gerard Depardieu. Frankly this was a mistake. The qualifications for playing a Frenchman in this movie were centered around the ability to affect an unaccented period English to substitute for the French spoken by the real court. Sadly, France's most famous actor was woefully underqualified to play a Frenchman in this film. He runs around speaking barely comprehensible English with a French accent, all of which begs the question of why the other Frenchman don't have French accents.
He is also the lust object of a foppish royal and a beautiful courtesan. Huh? Depardieu as a love god? I don't know where the big guy has been since he had his health problems, but I know it wasn't in a gym. He has now achieved a size where he could play the chubbier brother of either Marlon Brando or "Free" Willie. I mean this guy is enormous. He is an entire urban settlement, and is starting to establish suburbs.
And (sigh) he can't deliver a line correctly in English, but how do you direct him? How would you do it? How do you go up to France's greatest living film icon and tell him he's doing a lousy job at playing a Frenchman who was probably a lot like himself? I don't know, and neither did Roland Joffe, the director, who simply let Depardieu's role degenerate into running around in a Big and Tall Man's muu-muu, barking orders and solutions to his crewmen. In a typical scene, Depardieu wanders among the craftsmen, showing the carpenters how to use pine as an oak substitute, showing the chefs how to create a better sauce with fewer eggs, telling the actors to be the tree and the golfers to be the ball, showing the painters how to mix a richer shade of gold by using a different grade of bitumen, and expounding to the children on the 500 known types of pears. At one point, I think he corrected the priests for poor communion-dispensing techniques "I want to see more wrist-action with that wafer, mon bishop". Basically, he combined the knowledge and talents of Charles Darwin, Carolus Linneaus, Escoffier, Martha Stewart, Rembrandt, Bob Fosse, Jesus, and Lee Iococca.
Plus, he has some serious big-ass cojones. When the king summons Vatel to congratulate him, the big guy is busily supervising a show, and he tells the messenger "not now! does the king think all of this happens by itself?" What a guy! No wonder everybody at the banquet wanted to fuck him despite his 400 pounds of jiggling flesh.
By the way, Vatel was a real historical character, and this story is semi-fictional, semi-historical.
During the course of the king's weekend in the country, three men all formed lustful attachments to beautiful Uma Thurman: the sun king himself (played with cunning and slimy panache by Julian Sands), the king's right hand man and leading court intriguer (played with smarmy conniving by Tim Roth, precisely the same character he played in Rob Roy, in very similar costumes), and old Depardieu himself. Uma wants the honest, compassionate Depardieu, but she also must run when the king calls, and ultimately is blackmailed into sex by the intriguer.
|The overriding irony
of the film is that the king is so suitably impressed by the weekend's
entertainments, that he wants Vatel himself, far more than he wants
the generalship of Vatel's master. Vatel is told to get his jumbo ass
to Versailles, where he can hope to apply his genius and imagination
toward amusing the royals non-stop. Unfortunately, Vatel can't abide
the empty-headed nobles, and he just can't bear to leave his dedicated
team of craftsmen, so he must find a solution. That's the dramatic
hook of the film, such as it is.
The film's greatest visual splendor comes from the fact that the weekend's activities are shown in some detail - plays, ice sculptures, fireworks, hunts, inane competitions, banquets - and are shown from the dual perspective of the nobles who enjoy the finished product in unblemished elegance, and the craftsmen who produce the works-in-progress in rat-filled back rooms just on the other side of the walls from where the rich cavort.
The film is worth watching because it seems to be an accurate history lesson about how things really worked, and it is worth watching because it is visually spectacular. It isn't a great movie, but I found the disappointments tolerable in light of those strengths.
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