Monday, July 5, 2010

Rotten At The Core

Vatel, starring Gerard Depardieu & Uma Thurman, directed by Roland Joffe, score by Ennio Morricone, 2000

I’m no friend of Robespierre. I hate his implacable, simplistic, kill-them-all philosophy. However, that does not mean that the Revolution-era French aristocracy were not ripe for judgment. If you need proof of that, just watch Vatel.

It is the sort of movie often described as a “lavish period film.” In the words of Ken Fox, it has “silly wigs, plunging d├ęcolletage, lavish banquets in ornate halls, a stirring score from Ennio Morricone and witty dialogue by Tom Stoppard (who adapted the original French screenplay into English). From mirrored halls to rats in the walls, rarely has a period film looked so authentic.”

But I would describe it as a devastating period film, one in which the rottenness beneath is constantly breaking out through the gilding. The king, his court, and the prince who is hosting them at his country home, all feel entitled a constant stream of the finest things. It only flatters them that the lives of the lower classes are used up and destroyed by their insatiable consumption. And even that is not enough; the court are consuming each other: bodies, reputations, and dissipated souls.

Depardieu plays Vatel, the “master of pleasures,” head cook, steward, and stage manager for the whole spectacle. He is a professional, an accomplished chef and event planner, who handles everything from the meringue to the fireworks. But he is still, essentially, a high-ranking servant. In the course of the week the film covers, Vatel is ordered about, threatened, insulted, propositioned by another man, bought and sold in a card game, and almost murdered. Through his experience, we see the violence inherent in the system. (In fact, the only skill in which the aristocrats show themselves to be competent is swordplay, when Vatel is ambushed by his court enemies, then rescued by a rival group.)

“Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come,” said Jesus. Reflecting on this film, I was reminded of His words. France reaped violence during The Terror, in large part because her kings had sown violence for many years before.