The French Revolution as Dinner Theater

I can barely remember what the American Revolution was about. A Constitution arose from it, to protect the property owners, and, at the last minute, a doggy bone for the loud-mouthed plebs, called the Bill of Rights. The twittersphere was born, gunsmoke was in the air. Arguably, the first citizen to die for the fresh cause was a newly-freed Black man named (natch) Crispus Attucks. As a Boston boy growing up, I sold newspapers outside the train station near the Old State House where Crispus took one for the team.

The French Revolution, between 1889 and 1899, I remember even less about. Head cheeses rolled.  Marie Antoinette. Guy O Tines went on to play for Les Habs. I’m told that bedlam broke out at the Bastille when it was discovered that the Marquis de Sade — who, head in the dungeon, wrote prolifically about the “lust in his heart” — had been transferred to another asylum. All the big smokes had something nice to say about de Sade — Michel Foucault, Camille Paglia, Susan Sontag. Michel Onfray, however, was au contraire, mon frere, saying, in Wikipedia, that “it is intellectually bizarre to make Sade a hero…” Robespierre. Antonin Artaud played Marat in the bath tub scene of a Theater of Cruelty production. My French teacher at junior high was surely part of the New Wave, a Truffault truffle worth snuffling after, and I snuffled, smitten witten her every moving curvicature, as she put Françoise Hardy’s “Tous les garçons et les filles” on the record player — even the scratches were sexy. I finally came across that French teacher again in her new form, Feist, singing “1234.” Personally, I think it’s about time we stormed the Bastards who steal. Egalite! Fraternite! Liberte!™.

All of this is prelude, of course — to something. I was recently watching the French film, Delicious (2021). That must be it. I really enjoyed it and I’m going to tell you why. The cast, though unknown to me because I don’t watch a lot of French films these days, was delightful. It was directed and co-written by Éric Besnard, perhaps known in the West for his work in the Jason Statham vehicle, Wrath of Man (2021)  Delicious stars Grégory Gadebois as chef Pierre Manceron who starred as Charlie in a French version of Flowers of Algernon (“They also serve who only sweep and buff,” was the poster slogan, as I translated it.); Isabelle Carré as Louise, his kitchen side kick and inspiration; Benjamin Lavernhe (The French Dispatch, 2021) as Le duc de Chamfort, gasbag and flaming asshole and one-man reason for a spanking good revolution. It’s a fine tension set. They get on each other’s nerves and we feast on it. Get it?

Everything starts off pleasantly bourgeois. Chef Pierre has prepared a feast — as far as I’m concerned — for the ages. Overflowing sumptuousness. Details du jour. Meunière up the yinyang.  This guy’s going places. Everybody seems happy with the food served up. But, lo and behold, someone doesn’t like the little off-menu freestyle potato dish. Qu’est-ce que c est? And the petty little bourgeois set gets busy. Some minor religious functionary takes haughty umbrage at the freedom fries that died for his liberated tongue. And then that plate and that and that tossed away like some gruel out of Hugo. What had been gastronomical fulfillment just moments before is now le esprit les miserables. Onto the floor go the delightful dishes. An apology is needed. And as the IMDB storyline says:

France, 1789, just before the Revolution. With the help of a surprising young woman, a chef who has been sacked by his master finds the strength to free himself from his position as a servant and opens the first restaurant.

Game on bourgeoisie!

You’d think that the duke would just leave Pierre alone, having humiliated him and caused him to regret ever conjuring up his feast, carefully choreographed for the viewer to make sure we get out our iPhones and check for a decent French restaurant nearby the theater.  The gratuitous touching of her knee next to you ensues; you show her the menu; she squeezes you some back and rather pleasantly shushes you — you think her smile has a promise enclosed in the rouge lips. But no.  The duke’s not through. He wants cat and mouse. The chef continues light cooking, thinking that eventually the duke will miss his palette pal and re-hire. But no, he longs to be brought to the guillotine, the prique.

A pretty out-of-work woman (Louise) shows up at his door wanting to be his apprentice. He’s unimpressed by her hands, which seem to  have known little work, but she presses, she kneads the work and the work kneads her, she pleads. She’s mysterious. He’s intrigued. And then he’s horny. Then she rebuffs him without first buffing him. Then he really likes her — the whole spirit thing — integrity, honesty, and genuine interest in his culinary arts-for-arts sake posturing. She manages to take the sulk off his face and hires her as an apprentice. Together, they open a kind of roadhouse for wayfarers to and fro Paris. Yummies are made. Word gets out. Why, even the snobbish duke is re-smitten and sends emissaries to have Pierre and Louise set up a sumptuousness at the stop. They prepare a feast for him, sure that it will convince him to rehire him. The day arrives in all its built-up glory.  And the prique royale drives right by as if the roadside stop weren’t there. Such disdain!

And then it turns out that Louise, who by now he has bedded down in a bed of down with eider pillows, has something to hide. It’s not something the chef wants to hear. He goes, lalalalala, holding his ears. Tells her to fuck off. There’s more, but it gets into spoiler territory. Quick quiz, reader: What do you think happens next?

No, I liked the film.  This idea of the “first” restaurant opening up, devoted to educating the senses of the hoi polloi and hootie tootsies both, separate but equal tables, appealed to me gustatory needs and I loved the setting (outdoor tables) and the gladness that was all around. Beams bright as the fresh bread steaming to all’s delight. When you saw that they treated the poor and the soldiers and Moulin Rouge girls on holiday the same as the pedigreed shites who would have to die in the coming revolution, did not tears of circumspection not arise in your eyes, old man?

Of course, we now know how it all worked out.  But that too would be a spoiler, if I reminded you of what you already know. I watched the film twice. Tried first in French, like some poser. It reminded me — a propos of the yellow wet snow, where some dogmatist, with a bone of contention, had lately been, steam still rising in question marks — of Mark Twain’s visit to France, as a young Yankee hayseed from Connecticut, and remarked on the poor linguistic skill of the locals, noting that when he ordered something off the menu the waitress didn’t seem to know her own language. The crummy crepe was not the pancake he ordered when he pointed at the picture, thinking that. I think if you buy the easy premise of the tale being a harbinger of nasty class things to come you can settle in quite nicely next to the comely feminist mystique your with. Simone de Bourgeois, you mutter, her knee cap in the cup of your hand.

I wouldn’t say run to see it, because it’s streaming. You’ll trip. But it could be fun to order up some victuals from, say, Patisserie Chanson, and, if you’re lucky, Feist and her crew will show up at your door with the delivery and you’ll have a show before the flick — Un, deux, trois, quatre.

Highly recommended.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.