Tag Archives: Tom Stoppard

The Master of Pleasures and The Taste of Cherries: Vatel, the Film

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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.

Château de Chantilly ©

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.

Julian Glover as Prince Condé and Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu as his wife, the Princess, Vatel ©

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.

Depardieu as Vatel, and Glover as Condé, Vatel ©

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.

Murray Lachlan Young as Philippe of France, Duke of Orléans, Monsieur, The King’s Brother, Vatel ©

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.

Julien Sands as King Louis XIV, Vatel ©

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.

Uma Thurman as Anne de Montausier and Tim Roth as Lauzun, Vatel ©

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.

Depardieu as Vatel and Thurman as Montausier, 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.

Vatel is available for rent (or purchase) from Amazon ($2.99 HD), YouTube ($1.99 SD, $2.99 HD), iTunes ($2.99 SD), Vudu ($2.99 SD, $3.99 HD), and GooglePlay ($1.99 SD).

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Verdict on Anna-K, the Film

Last night, for many reasons — including living in an isolated area where the nearest movie houses are about 2 hours away — I saw the newest film version of Anna Karenina on HBO — starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Matthew MacFadyen, among others — and I have to say that the film is beyond bad, and guilty of breaking all the rules of good film-making.

Anna Karenina,  by Leo Tolstoy, is an epic Russian novel with two complete, intertwined stories. The first involves Levin and Kitty, who eventually become the “ideal” of married love and fidelity, with a strong emphasis on a rejection of the worldly life of the city and the aristocracy for a “return” to the simpler life of the peasantry (which is a lie, actually, since Levin and Kitty are both wealthy, and own the country estate and the peasants/serfs where, like Marie Antionette, they “play” at being simple folk). Their story is interwoven and contrasted throughout with that of Anna, who is married to the bureaucrat Karenin but who falls in love and has an adulterous affair with Count Vronsky (from whom Kitty had, at first, expected a proposal, which is how the two separate storylines begin, but who is “jilted” after Vronsky meets Anna, as the two fall in love on sight).

Throughout the novel, Tolstoy makes it clear that he disapproves of Vronsky and Anna, even comparing their first sexual encounter to “murder” and “punishing” Anna for her adultery by (1) making her lose her son, (2) taking away her social status, (3) making her a drug addict, (4) making her unreasonably, virtually insanely jealous of Vronsky’s attentions to anyone else, and, finally, (5) making her commit suicide. Meanwhile, Kitty & Levin — the couple Tolstoy approves of — have a rocky start when she first thinks she loves Vronsky, but then, realizing her mistake and marrying Levin, the two live happily ever after, in harmony with each other, the land (which Levin owns), the peasants (who are Levin’s serfs), and even God.

There have been countless film and television adaptations of Anna Karenina, and most have had their flaws. Usually, the actors playing Anna and her husband Karenin are better than the actor playing Vronsky, so the supposed “chemistry” between Vronsky and Anna simply doesn’t come across in the films. This newest version, however, commits so many crimes against good film-making and against making good books into films that this Court finds it Guilty of several offenses.

Guilty of Crimes Against Turning a Good Book into a Bad Film

  • If you haven’t read the novel Anna Karenina, you’ll have no idea who the characters in the film are, or what their relationships to each other are. That makes it difficult to figure out who’s who, and why they’re even in the film in the first place.
  • If you haven’t read the novel several times, you’ll have no idea of what’s happening in the movie: there’s virtually no plot in this version of the film; it’s more like a trailer that’s 2 hours long. It might be considered visually stunning by some, but it makes no sense whatsoever.
  • All the intensive character development in the novel is missing in the film, so the characters’ actions make little sense — even if you have read the book.

Guilty on all three counts of Turning a Good Book into a Bad Film by making it necessary to have read the entire novel, perhaps several times, in  order to know who all the characters are, what their relationships are, and what, exactly, the plot of the whole thing is.

Guilty of Crimes Against Making Good Film


Everything in the entire movie is set up as if it’s in a playhouse, even the infamous horse-race where Karenin first learns for a fact that his wife is, indeed, unfaithful.

A horse-race on a stage? By this time in the movie, I was beginning to think it was going to happen, but I still started laughing when I saw it. The Horse-Race Scene, on, of all things, a stage in a theater.

  • The costumes are more important that the character development, plot, and dialogue. Again, intentionally. Though I didn’t know what was wrong with the costumes till I found the video about Creating the Stunning Costumes for Anna Karenina, the designer mixed the clothing styles of 1873 Russian aristocracy with those of the 1950s (from which country, I have no idea). (To see the video, which has the same URL as most of the others, you have to go to the main site, then click on the title about the costumes.) While I watched the movie, however, the costumes kept bothering me, calling unnecessary attention to themselves rather than to defining the characters, and making me wonder what was wrong with the costumes. I found out when I was researching the film. (And, yes, I know the Costumes won an Oscar.) As Keira Knightley states in the featurette: “The rules of a period film have been completely broken, and that goes for the costumes as well.”  Pity, actually.
  • The audience laughs when the scenes are not supposed to be funny. I was actually glad that I didn’t see this film in the theater because the unintentional laughter of the audience would have made me miss whatever little dialogue there was, as in the dancing scenes, where everyone’s moving his arms as if they’re snakes. One of the most notoriously ludicrous dancing scenes Hollywood has actually financed.

Guilty on all Three Counts of Making a Bad Film by Making Scenery, Stage-Setting, & Costumes more important that Plot, Dialogue, and Character Development; and by Making the Film Unintentionally Ludicrous and Funny.

Other Crimes Against Making Good Films
I’m not even going to mention wasting the talented Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Matthew MacFadyen by giving them virtually no screen-time (especially the last two). The three are in the film, oh, let’s say, 25 minutes of the entire two hours. But I may be exaggerating a bit: they may not be on-screen that long; I didn’t think I’d need a stop-watch while watching this long-anticipated remake of one of my favorite novels.

I’m not going to discuss the fact that a casting director has, once again, put all the major acting talent in the roles of Anna, her husband Karenin, and her brother (a minor role in the novel and the film) Stiva [Oblonsky], and put a nondescript, ineffectual actor in the role of Vronsky, once again resulting in absolutely no chemistry between the “dashing, wealthy, exciting, cavalry officer” and the married, faithful, devoted Anna, the man for whom Anna Karenina risks her entire life, family, social position, reputation, etc. No chemistry, folks. Not even a spark. You could tell Keira was really trying, but even she couldn’t pull it off. Fizzle. Even in the supposedly erotic scenes.

And I’m not going to talk about all the times when every character in the scene freezes — staying perfectly motionless for extended periods of time — while one or two of the principal players dances, or walks, or looks at something, or says a few words that often make no sense if you haven’t read the book (see first set of Crimes, above; and because someone might ask me what I’m talking about here, I’ll use the line someone says when Anna’s husband Karenin and her lover Vronsky are in the same place together: “That’s one too many Alexeys for me.” If you haven’t read the novel, you wouldn’t know that both men have the first name Alexey, since each is usually referred to, in both book and film, by their last names — Karenin and Vronsky — so that it’s clear who’s being discussed.)

And the last thing I’m not going to mention is the fact that the screenplay was written by Tom Stoppard, an award-winning playwright & screenwriter, who knows everything there is about plays and playwriting (he’s a Shakespeare scholar as well as the author of the original play & film adaptation Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead and of the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love). Tom Stoppard, either on his own or with the director’s wishes/approval, set the entire movie up as if it were on a stage — even a horse race — where the scenery literally moves and the characters are suddenly walking into another place and time.

I was so looking forward to this remake of this film. I adore the principal actors mentioned above, and believed that, with their combined talents, the film was going to rake in the Oscars.

For Best Unintentional Comedy.

Maybe.

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