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A visual feast starving for some action
Not much to digest in boring 'Vatel'
(CNN) -- Even though such recognizable performers as Gerard Depardieu, Uma Thurman, and Tim Roth appear in the royal intrigue drama "Vatel," it actually stars Cecilia Montiel, Jean Rabasse, and Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle.
Don't feel uninformed if you've never heard of these people. Montiel and Rabasse are production designers, and de Nesle creates costumes. The story of a headstrong steward who orchestrates an opulent, days-long gathering in honor of King Louis XIV (Julian Sands), "Vatel" is so visually sumptuous, you can barely spot the cast for the surroundings.
The movie's downfall is that they're not particularly interesting once you've located them.
Director Roland Joffe is hardly the best choice to manage this type of picture. His bizarrely rewritten version of "The Scarlet Letter" (1995) basically got laughed off the screen, although the casting of Demi Moore as a publicly hassled Puritan woman certainly gave it a head start.
"Vatel" is nowhere near as ineffective as "Scarlet Letter" is; few movies are. It's just deadly, deadly dull.
A royal visit
A sizable chunk of the story consists of Depardieu improvising lush meals when the eggs go bad or when the boats don't bring in enough shellfish. It's like a wildly detailed episode of Martha Stewart, circa 1671.
Depardieu plays the title character, a lonely, glorified servant to France's Prince de Conde (Julian Glover). There's a little bit of stink made at the beginning of the story about de Conde being a great military leader. France is on the verge of war with Holland, and King Louis may be coming to recruit him for the effort. That thread quickly recedes to the background, though. The real reason everyone's so concerned with the king's visit is that he controls the royal purse strings, and money is in short supply.
Vatel despises inhumane egotism, but his daunting task is to transform Louis' stay at the castle into something resembling an ongoing production of "Cats," only peppered with absurdly rich gourmet meals. The hope is that King Louis will be so satiated by the experience, he'll gladly open the coffers.
For a while, it's fascinating to watch Vatel grudgingly turn on the razzle-dazzle; he leaves no scallop unseasoned, no cherry unglazed, in his attempt to wow the royals.
The specifics of the food preparation alone is staggering. Every dish, topped with hollandaise sauce, looks like the answer to your prayers, and the theatrical atmosphere is just as intoxicating. Vatel puts on elaborate stage shows in which dancers and flute players rise from out of nowhere. The sets are ornate dreams of gold leaf, stardust and fake palm trees. There's even a papier-mache whale and a ground-level fireworks display.
Lots of food, little action
If only Joffe had gotten more fireworks out of Vatel's personal crisis. Smirking King Louis' latest mistress, Anne (Uma Thurman), has eyes for the kindly Vatel, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, she's so far above his station, they can barely spend any time together. It takes so long for them to have an intimate conversation, let alone grab each other, you eventually quit worrying about their would-be romance. Roth's aid to the king, de Lauzun, also is hot for Anne, so he gets treacherous when he finds out where she'd rather be bedding down.
It's about time somebody pointed out Thurman's penchant for stretching her elegant neck and posing, rather than acting. It's not completely her fault, since directors often cast her as scenery. She doesn't, however, have to accept every role that gets offered. The only discernible difference between Anne and the character Thurman played in 1988's "Dangerous Liaisons" is that Anne is 12 years older. This is not growth as an actress, nor is strutting around in skin-tight jumpsuits ("The Avengers," 1998).
Thurman has had her moments, such as her boldly comic turn in 1994's "Pulp Fiction." But she needs to remember that motion pictures aren't runway shows ... at least they're not supposed to be, if you have something more to offer.
It would seem that "Vatel"'s lack of dramatic tension stems from Joffe identifying too closely with his central protagonist. Depardieu looks like nothing less than a movie director coordinating a costume drama as he runs from one place to the next, making sure that thousands of ungainly elements are in place and ready for the ultimate unveiling.
There's no denying that he sets a gorgeous table. There just isn't anything to chew on.
"Vatel" contains dark implications of pedophilia, lots of heaving bosoms, some violence and a bit of tame sex. Your popcorn and chocolate raisins will seem wholly insufficient once Depardieu enters the kitchen. Rated PG-13. 117 minutes.
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