Tummy trouble

A Chef in Love induces arthouse indigestion

A certain kind of movie lover adores anything and everything foreign--French romantic comedies, Chinese historical dramas, English studies of class conflict. This is a perfectly defensible bias to hold, since the cinema does nothing better than take the stories of distant neighborhoods and write them so large across the screen that their elements transmute geographic barriers into an Esperanto of human foibles. The greatest thing an arthouse audience can learn from a filmmaker whose name they can't pronounce is how common earthling experiences reign everywhere.

And then there's the rest of us, who apply a sour-faced, distinctly American outlook to the overseas movies we watch. This smirky attitude can basically be summed up as follows: I dare you to move me. The Greeks may have invented irony as a potent dramatic device, but America has raised it, for better or worse, to an art form--we cynical arthouse ticket-buyers are forever seeking the shell game that will truly dupe us into caring, the surprise we haven't been dealt before. We want to be ambushed by the universal core of the dilemma being portrayed, not bearhugged by it. A story that assumes our involvement because the formula being used is plush with familiarity offends us; we get a moviegoing experience just as unrewarding as the Spielberg blockbuster The Lost World, a cinematic snippet of ugly Americana weighed down with platitudes and contrivances. For us, the exotic locale is irrelevant if the design bespeaks a smug presumption about what will affect us.

A Chef in Love, the French-Russian export nominated for best foreign film at this year's Oscars, and Kolya, the movie that actually won that honor, have two things in common: Both arrive from post-perestroika Russia (in the case of Chef, with indispensable cooperation from the French film industry), and both are triumph-of-the-human-spirit, little-people-caught-in-the-gears-of-history movies that lower their storytelling nets with such noisy predictability, even the cognoscenti appeal of subtitles provides cold comfort. The nerve-racking clank of those machinations makes the arthouse pose difficult to maintain.

Just as you can rent a variety of cheesy American films with Shirley Temple or Deanna Durbin that lay the same thematic Astroturf as Kolya, you can find any number of stateside analogues to the title character of A Chef in Love, an irascible innocent whose head-in-the-clouds pluckiness permits him to prevail through the chaos that tears apart the world around him. The most immediate examples that came to mind are from two popular but otherwise disparate films--Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump and Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude. In both cases, directors Robert Zemeckis and Hal Ashby imposed on my hospitality as a ticket-buyer, taking the automatic hour-length benefit of the doubt I grant to anyone who's just received my seven bucks (adjusted for inflation, of course) in exchange for entertainment and fairly taunting me with a sentimental torrent of bids for my affection.

Likewise, the hero of A Chef in Love plants a big wet kiss on your lips every 10 minutes or so--eventually, you wish the old masher would quit pawing you and take a reality check. As played by the undeniably charming French star Pierre Richard (altogether shaggier, craggier, and more sunburned here than in his starmaking 1971 turn in The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe), the character of master chef Pascal is a lovable hedonist whose cultural and culinary adventurousness stands in stark relief to the Communist Revolution that's about to turn the countryside of 1921 Georgia into more generic acreage in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This is where Pascal, an aging epicure who spent his youth traveling as a gigolo on international cruises, has set out in search of the supreme gustatory delights that Russian villages can offer him. He kidnaps pigs from incompetent innkeepers, chugs wine from the same enormous horn that only Alexander Dumas could finish, and can identify the contents of a dish down to every spice.

On a train, Pascal meets the flirtatious Cecilia (Nino Kirtadze) and immediately begins to woo her with primo vino and a makeshift gourmet meal prepared in five minutes from his suitcase. She becomes his companion, champion, and critic throughout his tumultuous explorations in Georgia. But after the Red Army seizes the area, she's ensnared by a humorless Bolshevik warrior named Zigmund (Jean-Yves Gautier) who forces her to separate from Pascal, who is driven out of his own wildly successful restaurant in the capital city of Tbilisi by the marauding Communist forces. One thing is clear--he despises these demagogues more for their crude palates than for their blind faith in Lenin.

Whether he's sniffing out a bomb beneath the Georgian president's seat at the ballet or serving crow to his Communist captors so they'll collapse in diarrhetic fits, Pascal is an artful sensualist whose voracious love of life drained me like a vampire midway through the film. The fact that Pierre Richard is paired with an actress as inconsequential as Nino Kirtadze makes his heartiness all the more grating. European actresses from Catherine Deneuve to Juliette Binoche have parlayed icy stares into credible performances. But Kirtadze lacks their beauty, and more importantly, their intelligence; the vapidity of her performance renders her hell-or-high-water devotion to Pascal an irksome mystery.

When you enter A Chef in Love in a taste test alongside the past decade's foreign favorites about food and love, director Nana Djordjadze's bland concoction suffers for the competition. The movie lacks the visual splendor of Like Water For Chocolate, the tart relationship wisdom of Eat Drink Man Woman, and the gentle mischievousness of Tampopo. The sterility of the Communist conquerors, vaguely exploited for laughs here, breaks out of that satirical target and infects the whole of this cross-cultural exercise. The occasional tragedy becomes indistinguishable from Pascal's monolithic merriment, except that it may feel even more anticlimactic. For a film that purports to celebrate all the flavors life has to offer, A Chef in Love languishes on your tongue, curiously without spice.

A Chef in Love.
Pierre Richard, Nino Kirtadze, Temour Kahmhadze. Written by Irakli Kvirikadze and Andre Grall. Directed by Nana Djordjadze. Opens Friday.

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