Delicious film shows how the French used food as a weapon

Isabelle Carré, left and Grégory Gadebois in Delicious. Picture: PalaceFilms
Isabelle Carré, left and Grégory Gadebois in Delicious. Picture: PalaceFilms

In the summer of 1987-88, the cinema I worked my school holidays at played the Danish film Babette's Feast - the story of a refugee from the Franco-Prussian War cooking a thank-you meal for the austere Danish community who took her in, turning out to be one of France's most noted chefs. The film turned me into both a foodie and a cinephile, and I've been a sucker for a foodie film ever since.

What is a foodie film? I think of the onscreen marriage of the preparation of and love for food built into a film's fabric, such as with the sensuous Mexican film Like Water for Chocolate, where the repressed Tita poured her love for the man she could not have into her cooking, particularly a dish of quails in rose petal sauce.

I think of the ageing chef cooking one perfect last family meal for his three grown daughters in the Taiwanese film Eat Drink Man Woman. I think of the giant Timballo, an amalgam of various pasta dishes baked together into a pie, made by brother chefs trying to save their dying restaurant in Big Night.

A new title will join this list of foodie film faves for many with director Eric Besnard's Delicious.

Besnard takes us back to the days just before the French Revolution, when gastronomy was something enjoyed only by the aristocracy, and where food was a weapon in the social game they played. A gentleman's chef and the meals he served his guests could make or break a reputation.

The Duke of Chamfort (Benjamin Lavernhe) is thoroughly proud of his chef Manceron (Grégory Gadebois) and invites rivals from court to impress them with Manceron's dishes.

But Manceron makes a culinary faux pas, serving them a dish we might pay through the nose for today, a tart of truffle and potato, which the Duke's guests see as two ingredients only the poor eat. Manceron is dismissed from Chamfort's service and moves back to his own family home.

Depressed, Manceron has lost his sense of taste and his passion for life, until a woman (Isabelle Carré) arrives on his doorstep, knowing his reputation and begging to learn cooking at his side.

As Manceron regains some sense of his former joy in the culinary arts, they breathe life into the family coach house.

Exploring the social conditions that were the tinder sparking the Revolution through food, good food, and particularly the access to it previously only enjoyed by the wealthy, Besnard imagines what effect a taste of culinary imagination has on the working poor of the day.

While Delicious is not a truly factual historical film, Besnard is a meticulous researcher for his films, and he has worked from a factual event, the creation of the first restaurant as we have come to know it, a place serving well-prepared meals that any person with the money to pay for them, regardless of class or status, may come and enjoy.

"I didn't originally mean to do a film about food at all, I wanted to do a film about the French Revolution, about the Age of Enlightenment," Besnard says.

He explains that a single sentence stood out to him while reading, about the creation of the first restaurant, and sparked the film's narrative in his imagination.

"I didn't know it was an invention of the 18th century, but I began to understand it was definitely an idea of the Age of Enlightenment," he says, '"because the fact that someone from a low social class could propose this subjectivity for everyone, for everyone to have the right to try something, was definitely something new."

As Besnard explains it, cooking is representative of the liberty that sits behind the French revolutionary ethos.

"What I love in cooking is the fact that everybody can try it," he says, "because it doesn't have to be expensive to do, to make something good, but do have to make time, have to put a lot of time into it."

In the character of Manceron, Besnard builds a bear of a man with the soul of a poet, the poetry expressed in the kitchen.

Working with cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou, Besnard's camera lingers on the process the chef employs in the kitchen, cutting, frying, working with ingredients.

Grégory Gadebois in Delicious. Picture: PalaceFilms

Grégory Gadebois in Delicious. Picture: PalaceFilms

He took advice from food historian chefs Thierry Charrier and Jean-Charles Karmann to employ authentic ingredients and preparation techniques of the era. His scenes are held apart by beautifully lit tableaux of the prepared dishes awaiting service, or of the ingredients sitting awaiting their preparation, filmic versions of the still life paintings from museum and art gallery walls.

"These scenes were not in the script," Besnard says, "but I did not have a lot of money to shoot some of the things I wanted.

"During the shutdown I was looking at artworks and I was thinking about creating these scenes where every object is a symbol, so I thought to take a single day and to create it as an image. If you stop the film and you analyse each object on the table, it has a meaning."

As Besnard demonstrates in the film, food was weaponised by the aristocracy.

"What came out of my research was the aristocracy showing off through food," he says.

"At that point, the aristocratic class had no political role anymore because of the absolute monarchy, they had almost no military role anymore, they had to exist in some way and so they had feasting, they had hunting.

"They were about impressing and eating with your eyes in a way and this story is about a man who becomes an artist because he proposes something, he creates something new."

Besnard proposes that this teaching of new ideas and feasting with the eyes is the same culinary artistic spark that makes us fall in love with our favourite small-screen television chefs today.

Delicious is in cinemas now.

This story What makes a good foodie film? first appeared on The Canberra Times.