In April 1671, on the eve of the Franco-Dutch War, France’s King Louis XIV — the Sun King — desperately needed the military support and expertise of his country’s generals. The formerly rebellious but extremely famous Prince Louis II de Bourbon-Condé was thus informed that King Louis would “honor him” with a three-day visit to Condé’s magnificent Château de Chantilly. Since King Louis always insisted that his nobles and all their sycophants travel with him wherever he went, the honor of such a visit was dubious as well as incredibly expensive. Condé turned all the preparations over to his maître d’hôtel, François Vatel, who had approximately two weeks to prepare menus and festivities to entertain the King, the Queen, the Prince, the Princess, 600 nobles, and several thousand additional visitors. Vatel, formerly the most celebrated chef of his generation, had to orchestrate an extravagant festival which was to culminate in an elaborate banquet so impressive that the King would appoint Condé his general.
Based on the true story of Vatel as it was related in several contemporaneous letters by Prince Condé and also by the notorious gossip Madame de Sévigné, as well as on multiple contemporaneous memoirs, the film Vatel was originally written by Jeanne Labrune, adapted into English by Tom Stoppard, and directed by Roland Joffé. It is unclear which of those three expanded Vatel’s “banquet story” into a moral examination of the jaded 17th century French aristocrats. Filmed on location at the Château de Chantilly, Vatel is visually stunning and sumptuous. The castle itself, the furnishings, the gardens, the costumes, the jewels, and the food are all breathtakingly lush. Beneath these gorgeous trappings, however, the Sun King and his nobility are morally corrupt and corrosive. Further, a bitter discontent seethes under the aristocracy’s brittle veneer. In this world, “as opulent as it is cruel,” the moral choices you make can either elevate or, literally, destroy you.
Vatel begins with a letter in which Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Condé (Julian Glover) is informed by the King’s minister Marquis de Lauzun that King Louis wishes to “visit and enjoy the simple pleasures of the country,” which, Lauzun continues, means that Condé should “spare no expense whatsoever to entertain the king.” Condé is distressed. He is in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy (a departure from historical fact: Condé was extravagantly wealthy). If appointed General in a war with Holland, however, Condé’s debts will be paid by King Louis, so the Prince is desperate to please Louis.
Condé’s maître d’hôtel Vatel (Gérard Depardieu) is confident in his own abilities to entertain the King but more than slightly anxious about all the preparations: it is difficult to obtain supplies when one’s master has no money, even more difficult when one’s master is already significantly in debt to all the local producers and suppliers. As the guests arrive, Vatel, already encountering tactical difficulties concerning the entertainments, finds himself in the midst of multiple moral quagmires as well.
Monsieur, the King’s Brother (Murray Lachlan Young), though accompanied by his lover Marquis of Effiat, nevertheless wishes to have sexual relations with a young country boy. Vatel intervenes, igniting Monsieur’s displeasure and anger.
King Louis (Julian Sands), who has brought with him not one but two mistresses, as well as his wife the Queen, becomes interested in the Queen’s beautiful lady-in-waiting, Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman).
Vatel himself becomes enamored of Anne de Montausier: not only is she lovely, but she seems quite different from the rest of the nobles and aristocracy.
Unfortunately, the Marquis de Lauzun (Tim Roth) wants for Lady-in-waiting de Montausier for himself, so he bristles at both the King’s and Vatel’s interest in her. Lauzun sets spies on de Montausier as well as on Vatel.
Hounded by local suppliers, plagued by mounting disasters in the festivities, besieged by his master the Prince, threatened by Monsieur the King’s Brother, and manipulated by Marquis de Lauzun, the “Master of Pleasures” Vatel struggles to feed and entertain the royal guests and to resist his increasingly romantic feelings for a woman so far above his humble station.
Though the New York Times critic found Vatel “a costume drama with far more costumes than drama… as shallow as the court popinjays it seeks to expose,” the LA Times critic found it to be “a timeless tale of love and sacrifice.”
With strong writing and tremendous acting by all the principals, Vatel was nominated for awards in Best Art Direction, Set Decoration, Costume Design, and Production Design, winning a César (French Oscar) in Production Design.