Two French Films

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The French film festival is in town and last weekend I saw two films, Haut Cuisine and Augustine, both very different films in mood and subject. Augustine examines the relationship between Jean-Martin Charcot, a pioneer neurologist working at the Pitie-Salpetriere hospital in the late nineteenth century, and his patient Augustine, a nineteen year old maid with what he diagnosed as ‘ovarian hysteria’ but what would currently be diagnosed as epilepsy.

Vincent Lindon plays Charcot as a distant patriarch, committed to discovering the causes of mental illness but struggling with his erotic attraction to, and responsibility for, Augustine. Augustine is beautifully acted by Soko, who gets the right mix of vulnerability, resentment and awareness of Charcot’s attraction to her, probably before he realises. Both the asylum and Charcot’s home are photographed in rich, warm colours but the power imbalance between the observing, wealthy male doctors and the ‘mad’ poor, female patients brings a bleakness which cuts through the lush photography.

Charcot used a photographer to document his patients and their symptoms when he examined them, he also presented them to the academy and provoked their hysteria under hypnosis for the benefit of the attending doctors. These surviving photographs were subject to feminist scrutiny in the late twentieth century by scholars seeking to understand the construction of the feminine, the pathologising of women’s reproductive systems and the closely entwined growth of psychiatry.

I encountered these photos while at art school and as evidence of the sexist interpretation of medical symptoms they shocked my younger self. Older and wiser, I still find them disturbing and can’t help thinking that given daily life for women incarcerated in nineteenth century mental asylums was so horrendous, hysteria may well have been their only valid response. It’s a disquieting film – as it should be – with quite a pay-off at the end.

(Among many books exploring this area is Asti Hustvedt’s published in 2011. Click here for details.)

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Haut Cuisine provided much lighter fare. I knew the film was based on the memoirs of a French woman, Hortense, who became Francois Mitterand’s private chef. I expected beautiful food porn and was not dissapointed. There were lavishly lingering shots of gateau’s and duck breasts but sadly there was not much made of Hortense’s story.

Naturally, as a female cook in the macho world of commercial cooking, she encountered sexism. The presidential palace protocols irritated her and the lack of access to the President himself left her wondering what he actually liked to eat. But I couldn’t help think ‘so what?’ As a writer who does battle with plot, conflict, action and structure every day I often find myself automatically assessing films and their story telling merits. Haut Cuisine had so little action I was able to take out my metaphorical red pen and go to work.

The male dominated main kitchen gave Hortense the nickname of du Barry, after Madame du Barry, mistress of King Louis XV. It’s fair to look for an echo of du Barry in Hortense’s role in the President’s life. Otherwise why use the name? If the film were a novel one would assume the use of du Barry as a signpost either to Mitterand’s expectations, Hortense’s expectations or a previous private chef’s experiences. But no, this plot line fizzled to nothing.

Mitterand had numerous extramarital affairs as well as a mistress who bore his child while he held presidential office. The viewer, armed with this knowledge, follows Hortense one day as she stomps through the palace where she encounters an elderly, white haired man who possessed so little screen presence I thought at first he was a cleaner. But this was Mitterand, and what a spectacular piece of miscasting! This fragile chap was Mitterand, the great womaniser? Needless to say nothing happens between Hortense and Mitterand other than a pleasant chat about cookbooks. Another plot line fizzle.

Hortense comes up against ambitious, nit-picky presidential aides, insecure chefs from the main kitchens, and quelle horreur, a pair of zealous dieticians intent on removing all fat from the presidential diet. After two years of cooking in the Presidential palace she resigns. The last straw being an incident where she is rapped over the knuckles for spending too much money on a basket of mushrooms. Hortense decides she’s had enough of these bureaucratic cochons who lack all appreciation of the perfect cep and takes a job as a cook on an Antarctic base, where she feels she can recover from the traumas she’s had to endure.

Hortense’s story is a great starting point for a fictional work, a comedy or a drama, but the film makers have stayed too close to her story and as such it is no more than a catalogue of nuisances that everyone faces in their work lives. In Haut Cuisine the viewer keeps waiting for something to happen beyond luscious shots of truffles and Hortense’s occasional hissy fit over where to stash the oysters on a hot day. This was a pleasant film, one to see on a full stomach, but as a food film it couldn’t compare to Babette’s Feast or Julie and Julia.

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