The King arrived Thursday evening; hunting, lanterns, moonlight, a promenade, the meal in a place carpeted with jonquils, everything that one could wish. Supper was served; there were some tables at which there was no roast, because there were several more guests than were expected. This affected Vatel; he said several times: "I have lost honor; this is a disgrace which I can't bear." He said to Gourville: "My head is spinning, I haven't slept for twelve nights; help me give orders." Gourville help him as best he could. The roast which had been lacking, not at the King's table, but at the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth, kept coming back to his mind. The Prince went to his room and said to him, "Vatel, everything is going fine, nothing was ever as lovely as the King's supper." Vatel answered, "Sir, your goodness is too much for me; I know that there was no roast at two tables." "That's nothing at all," said the prince, "don't fret about it, everything is going fine."The film adds complexity to the motives underlying Vatel's despair, imagining that the chef, played by Gérard Depardieu, had fallen in love with the newest mistress of the king, Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman). In addition to seeing the woman he loves made into a whore, Vatel is being commissioned by the king to come and work permanently at the royal palace, meaning the stress of entertaining the court would become a daily occurrence. According to the LA Times review:
Night falls. The fireworks fail, because of a fog over everything; they had cost sixteen thousand francs. At 4:00 AM Vatel was everywhere, but he found everyone asleep; he ran into a small purveyor who brought him only two loads of fish; Vatel asked him, "Is that all?" He answered, "Yes, sir." He didn't know that Vatel had sent to all the ports. Vatel waited a while; the other purveyors didn't come; his head felt hot, he thought that he would have no other fish; he found Gourville, and said to him: "Sir, I will not survive this disgrace; I have honor and a reputation to lose." Gourville laughed at him. Vatel went up to his room, stood his sword against the door, and passed it through his heart; but that was only at the third stab, for the first two weren't fatal: He fell dead. However, the fish started coming from all sides; they looked for Vatel to distribute it; they went to his room, they started banging, they broke down the door; they found him drowned in his blood; they ran to the Prince, who was in despair.
Vatel is middle-aged and stout, but it is wholly understandable that Anne would be attracted to him as a man of strength and character. As staunch as the relationship between Conde and Vatel is, both nobleman and his steward live in a world as precarious as that of Anne, who realistically remarks that she has no way of knowing whether she is merely a momentary diversion from the king's renowned favorite Athenais de Montespan (Marine Delterme) or whether she'll end up a duchess....
In production design (by Jean Rabasse) and costume design (by Yvonne de Lassinot de Nesle) "Vatel" is a landmark in world cinema not merely for sheer grandeur but also attention to dense authenticity. As superb as the settings are, Joffe and Tom Stoppard, in adapting Jeanne Labrune's original screenplay, do not let them overwhelm their people--although the scenery may crush them literally as well as symbolically.
Depardieu is perfectly cast as Vatel, an actual historic figure, at once a man of the people, a patriot and a true artist as well as an artisan of varied and highly developed skill. Thurman is equally fine as the gallant Anne, with Roth suitably nasty, Glover appropriately noble as Conde and Sands a delight as Louis, whom he plays as the shrewdest of fops. (On his best day Louis was never as handsome as Sands, but the actor hits just the right note of witty hauteur.) Arielle Dombasle is the lovely, fearless Princess de Conde. The evocative score is by none other than Ennio Morricone....
Boldly distinctive in its depiction of individuals caught up in a veritable infernal machine designed solely to give pleasure to a monarch, "Vatel" is a timeless tale of love and sacrifice in a world as opulent as it is cruel.
The heartlessness of Louis XIV is perhaps overemphasized in the film, for as Madame de Sévigné wrote in the account which had been passed on to her, the King was sympathetic to Vatel and horrified to hear that the royal visit had precipitated the chef's suicide. "The King said that he hadn't been to Chantilly for five years because he knew how much strain his visits caused," recorded Madame. Later it became easier on everyone for Louis XIV to keep all the nobles at Versailles, where he could keep them under his eye without sending them into bankruptcy, as often happened when they tried to entertain him independently.
Vatel is a sumptuous film for anyone who is interested in French history and culture. The kitchens of chefs such as Vatel can be likened unto the most creative art studios on earth. How music, art, food, dance, and intrigue all came together at a court banquet was a mesmerizing yet agonizing process which the viewer is permitted to glimpse.