Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Miramax is known for its lavish, lush adaptations of classic
literature. It specializes in many eras, from Emma to An
Ideal Husband and Shakespeare in Love. One of its
lesser-known foreign films is Vatel, a story based on a
true-to-life event in French history. While gorgeous to look
at, it betrays itself by too much pomp and not enough
feeling. At the height of society in the perpetually dark
seventeen hundreds, France is contemplating a war with
Holland. His Majesty Louis XIV (Julian Sands) is seeking the
proper general to lead his victory, and among those being
contemplated is Prince de Conde (Julian Glover), an outer
limb of the aristocracy and a former war hero who is gravely
in debt to his creditors.
Hoping against hope that he will gain the position, the Prince invites the royal court to his country estate where he hopes to buy into the king's favor by giving him an event to remember. The Prince's master of ceremonies is Vatel (Grard Depardieu), a man of little means and country roots, but an impressive sense of artistic valor. The house becomes a flurry of activity as preparations are made, rooms are quarreled over, the silver is polished, and hundreds upon hundreds of baskets of food are purchased on credit. When the royal court does arrive, among them is the beautiful Anne de Montauseir (Uma Thurman), one of the queen's ladies in waiting. Favored by the king's right hand man, whose overtures she refuses, she finds Vatel a fascinating man, his talents unique and free from the ceremony and cruelty of court. He is not like the other men in her life, those who seek to use her only for their own purposes. Anne walks a narrow path, for she has caught Louis' eye... but her heart is steadily growing fond of Vatel, much to the displeasure of her other admirers.
All is not progressing well in the country. The surfs are anxious to be paid for the lavish festivities which they have donated to Vatel's house to impress the king. The King's brother has taken a dislike to Vatel's sense of ceremony and his friends are almost uncontrollable. Amidst the polished silver and sugar flowers is brewing a sinister thread of trouble, not merely amongst the aristocracy, but those below kitchens as well. Can Vatel cut off trouble at its source, or will his house of cards come tumbling down? Visually, this film is a delight. The costuming and sets are exquisite, the lavish decorations revealing to a shocked audience just how frivolous the court of France was in this period. Some of their festivities would put modern galas to shame. The food looks utterly delicious, more of a feast for the eyes than the stomach. We watch in jealousy as the king and his courtiers are given ornate formations of sugared flowers and fruits, and platters of food decorated in peacock feathers.
Typical to the French, passions run wild but the film never entirely manages to make us care all that much. In delicate taste, the film alludes to many an impassioned affair... hints of scandal and impropriety while never entirely giving it all away or showing us too much. This type of filming is almost as disconcerting as showing everything; for you know what's going on just below the surface. Sadly, all of the main characters are immoral. The film's worst flaw is that it doesn't have much heart behind it. We grow fond of Vatel and Anne out of self defense, but the ending is depressing and the means of getting there as fragile as glass ornaments. When all is said and done, it's a pretty piece of wrapping with an empty box as as profit: pretty to look at, but empty.
Sexual blackmail is used on one occasion; implications of homosexual overtures; implications of adultery; on two occasions nudity is implied: Anne hurries to return to her rooms (seen in silhouette), and a boy is tossed into a giant washing barrel.
Men are stabbed, battered, and whipped; blood spatters the wall and floor, and is seen on aprons and hands. A servant is accidentally strangled. Vatel is forced to sacrifice his parrots to save Anne's birds; they are killed and their hearts wrapped around a gout foot.