Miramax isn't the only connection: The brilliant British playwright Tom Stoppard, who shared an Oscar for his work on Shakespeare in Love, is credited here with adapting Jeanne Labrune's unproduced French screenplay into English. But Vatel may be an even tougher sell. Shakespeare, at least, was essentially a comedy; Vatel, while replete with witty touches, is most decidedly a tragedy.
Gérard Depardieu stars as François Vatel, the master of revels for the Prince de Condé (Julian Glover). Condé, having fought in rebellions against the French crown a few decades earlier, is not in the good graces of reigning monarch Louis XIV (Julian Sands). But Louis suddenly announces he is bringing his entourage from Versailles to spend some time at Condé's palace -- a clear gesture of reconciliation. In fact, Louis needs Condé's military expertise for an upcoming war with the Dutch, and the nearly bankrupt Condé is in dire need of an infusion of royal cash.
In 1671, apparently, being a master of revels means being master chef, social director, administrator, accountant, chief of protocol, and writer-director-designer of fabulous entertainments. The king's visit represents a go-for-broke effort for Vatel: Condé is on the edge of ruin, and Vatel must bet all of his boss's remaining resources on the hope of Louis's approval. (It is exactly analogous to the story in Stanley Tucci's Big Night, where the two brothers must risk everything on a lavish banquet to impress another royal Louis.) This is clearly the culmination of Vatel's career, and he is obsessively guided by his sense of professionalism and artistry, though his motivation is not so much self-glorification as devout fealty to Condé.
Unfortunately for Vatel, into this already tense situation come all the devious, petty, and highly dangerous court intrigues of Versailles. In particular, there is the scheming of the evil Marquis de Lauzun (Tim Roth). He immediately tries to undercut Vatel, whom he correctly perceives as a rival for the affections of Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman).
The script has some wonderful lines that have Stoppard's stamp on them: When Prince de Condé is impolitic enough to beat Louis at cards, one onlooker whispers, "The prince could lose everything." "Not," the reply comes, "if he plays his cards wrong."
But the movie's strongest point of interest is its portrait of decadence and privilege that exceed anything imaginable in modern society. Louis, by virtue of his position, can simply demand that any woman, married or not, hop into his bed. So absolute is his power that nobody dare risk even the appearance of disagreement. When Vatel has the gall to refuse to serve up an eight-year-old kitchen boy's adorable butt for use by the monarch's gay brother, it is considered an act of almost suicidal defiance. While Louis himself comes across as an engaging fellow, the whole structure of the society is so vile that the worst excesses of the French Revolution (still a century in the future) seem like kindly, moderate remedies.
Director Roland Joffé began his feature career with a bang, with the gripping Oscar-winner The Killing Fields. But most of his recent work -- including The Scarlet Letter and Goodbye Lover -- has been so bad as to make one wonder how that one early success might hold up after a second look. In fact, Vatel is a great improvement over his last effort, but not a big enough one. It has fine production design, cinematography, and music. (It must be noted that Ennio Morricone's score occasionally seems identical to Akira Senju's beautiful music for the 1995 Mystery of Rampo; given that Morricone is a great film composer, it may be that both are cribbing from the same classical source.)
But there is a central problem in Vatel, and that problem, surprisingly, is Depardieu. For two decades now, he has been the biggest French star in terms of international recognition. He has also been the biggest French star in terms of sheer girth. While it is normally not fair game to discuss such things in print, Depardieu's condition here not only distracts viewers from the story, but seems to have distracted Depardieu as well. In all his years, he has never looked quite this massive before; he seems to be having trouble merely walking around, as though he has reached a size where he no longer knows how to move comfortably. Add to that a pasty, sallow complexion that goes uncorrected by makeup, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that he is not at all well. (Indeed, the actor started suffering heart symptoms a year later and required a bypass.)
But more to the point, this is perhaps the worst performance ever from an actor who is never less than reliable and often achieves brilliance. He truly seems to be walking (or waddling) through it. Given his record, one can only assume that this anomaly is the result of a sick man trying to carry an arduous shoot on his shoulders, when in fact he shouldn't have been working at all.