Vatel [Roland Joffé, 2000] came out at a time of Miramax backlash. One can understand the resistance to another shallow Miramax crowd-pleaser when watching the trailers on the VHS – advertisements for Serendipity, Chocolat, and Behind The Sun, followed by a triumphant montage of all Miramax’s contributions to the new dawning of cinema. Fragments of scenes from their true classics (Life Is Beautiful, My Left Foot, Like Water For Chocolate, Life Is Beautiful, Strictly Ballroom, Clerks, Smoke, Life Is Beautiful, building to a dizzying whirl of title cards ranging from Happy, Texas to Bounce to Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. The home video release followed a ludicrously extragavant Cannes premiere party seemingly designed to create backlash. [Why is the only source I can find for the details of this the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal? It was covered attentively by Travers, Gleiberman et al. at the time.]
The film’s unloved status is understandable, given how prepared everyone was to be annoyed. It is SO lush, opulent, lavish, whichever adjective you prefer, and SO unchallenging. The “bitter/sweet” dual mandate of the indie drama is entirely “sweet”. I enjoyed it tremendously. It just flew by. That is to say, there were no obvious points to stop the tape, because it’s one of those films that resembles a 100-minute montage. Scenes are all about the same length, a minute or shorter, then a cut to another place, then a cut to another place, then a cut back to the first place. Stretches of vibrantly lovely music [Ennio Morricone] carry through scene after scene after scene, which seem to be unified by consistent panning from left to right. Just about every shot has a crowd of people in it, making special the moments of quiet and solitude. I don’t know anything about the technical aspects of filmmaking, but hopefully this makes sense. Directing and editing orchestrated for a smooth ride.
This editing is characteristic of:
1) Movies about drugs and craziness [e.g. Performance]
2) Movies made by Steven Soderbergh and/or Tony Gilroy [not so dependent on music to stitch these together]
3) Movies about the pleasurable preparation for, and anticipation of, some sort of epochal event. These include Big Night, Rachel Getting Married, and Vatel. It may also be the pleasurable development of an unexpected phenomenon [e.g. Be Kind Rewind]. The stakes are nominally high, but throughout the film you realize that life isn’t about whatever is being built up to, it’s about what happens along the way.
Vatel is Gérard Depardieu. He’s the only man without a wig who ever interacts with the men in wigs. His boss is a prince who’s going to go bust unless he successfully sucks up to Louis Quatorze. Vatel is the head steward and comes up with wondrous spectacles on both small and large scale, surprisingly few of which involve cooking. Vatel is in charge of getting the local merchants to keep extending credit because they’ll all get paid back in spades when the prince becomes a royal favorite. The stakes are low, and they aren’t raised by the looming spectre of war with the Dutch, which is brought up in the form of the king making jokes about the Dutch and how silly it would be to go to war with them. Nor are they raised by the emotional turmoil undergone by the king’s mistress [Uma Thurman – this was also part of the post-Avengers Uma Thurman backlash], who occupies many of the quiet and still moments — with her caged bird, looking out the window, talking in the rare privacy of the woods. The only thing we care about is Vatel demonstrating to everyone in the castle, including the foppish Bourbon courtiers who view him with more sneering amusement than Psychlos view man-animals, that he deserves respect.
Depardieu is the ideal actor for an everyman with the magic touch. The odd thing is, though, is he an everyman, or does he have the magic touch? He seems like a man of hard work and hard-won knowledge. Basically a chef. If he can keep cracking the whip, everyone will do their jobs and everything will fall into place [see Big Night]. But the script is fascinated by the idea that Vatel will win the king’s favor with ingenious fripperies and awesome spectacles that frankly seem magical. When Vatel makes this his job, he seems like one of those wise fools who in some realms of life are simple and guileless, but in other realms operate on a level untouchable to the common human.
The viewer resists being told at first that Vatel is an average schmoe, and later being hinted that he’s a sort of savant or oddity, and later being told that the king’s mistress [cynical at first, like all these courtesans], is falling for him. The unknowability of the main character means we are more comfortable experiencing the movie as a simple parade of visual pleasures, and baubles of wit courtesy of Tom Stoppard.
Alas, monsieur. Ten o’clock, I have an even more attractive offer. Her Majesty has asked me to delouse her spaniel.
Another seemed apt, and also contained a great archaic word use.
Demaury: More than half the eggs are addled. We can’t make the custard.
Vatel: Watch. (beating batter) The sugar will come out like beaten egg whites. If they ask you what it is, tell them it’s an old recipe from Chantilly.
A lot of this movie is confused as to its purpose, but it has too many great ingredients to be ignored.
* * *
Tim Roth plays the most human of the sneering fops in Vatel. He’s good in these period pieces. Never one-note. Never seems to be more knowledgeable than the character he’s playing, though he has the advantage of centuries of perspective.
To Kill A King [Mike Barker, 2003] is a more satisfying historical drama, with Roth in the fascinating role of Oliver Cromwell. In British history the Puritans are a sort of weird eruptive anarchic force. In American history they’re our inspirational forebears, seeking freedom, wanting to be left alone. The heart of this movie is its sympathy for four characters. Cromwell, Charles I [Rupert Everett], Thomas Fairfax [Dougray Scott], and Lady Anne Fairfax [Olivia Williams].
Fairfax is the military leader of the parliamentary revolution. The common people love him. The nobility is still okay with him. He has charisma. He’s a swashbuckler. That’s him on the horse in the highly misleading cover art. This is him bringing good news to the masses.
Fairfax is the only man Cromwell trusts who isn’t a Puritan. The other Puritans see him more as a tool than as a leader, a tool that fulfilled its duty when the king surrendered and now should be put back in the box. Will he continue to do what Cromwell wants? He’s not the Puritan leader, he’s the parliamentary leader. He’s not a political leader, he’s a military leader. Where are the other parliamentarians who will put together a post-royalist government? Only Cromwell has the imagination to start something new. Everyone else with nominal power is equivocating. This is obviously a simplification of history — Fairfax and Cromwell’s falling out was not over what to do with King Charles but over what to do with Scotland — but the goal is to show historical dynamics on a human scale.
Rupert Everett takes to the role of a fop like a duck to water. Here he’s the king. In a ridiculous wig. But he doesn’t sneer, he doesn’t act like he’s cleverer or handsomer than anyone else. He acts superior, by divine right. He gives orders, he demonstrates immense dignity, he makes it clear that although he has no claim to great leadership skills, his existence is impossible if he’s not in charge. With his posture, his voice, he conveys that there can be no compromise. Going down with the ship, as it were. Is he playing mind games with the hope that the Roundheads aren’t really convinced life is better with an empty throne? Is he hoping for an eleventh-hour rescue by the Scots? Everett doesn’t seem particularly smart, but he never wavers. He doesn’t seem brave, but doesn’t bargain with his captors. Very interesting performance.
Lady Fairfax is a royalist. The king enlists her to persuade her husband. All her friends are counting on her to preserve them from the mob, she hears. She wants to settle down on her family estate. This may be a stereotypical female role in that she doesn’t care who started the fussing and the fighting, she just doesn’t want to see more damage to life and limb, and certainly not more property damage. It’s all so senseless. One of the film’s inspired elements is that Lady Fairfax comes over to King Charles’s house arrest to brighten his days by playing music together. These sessions let her act as a go-between. Olivia Williams is great in the part. No matter who she’s talking to she’s serious in the same way. She’s preoccupied by the uncertainty and can’t relax.
Tim Roth’s Cromwell is the live wire. He’s basically a villain, which ruins the movie for some people. But it’s the sober, Michael Corleone sort of villain — with every decision he makes, you think “Given that he needs to adhere to basic principles of trust and loyalty, what else can he do?” Only Puritans trust him. He walks into parliament; sees people who look down on him as a simple-minded ideologue; and he resolves not to let them win, even though they have no particular goals. He goes back to his brethren; sees people who have spent their lives putting him in power and are on alert for signs that he’s being corrupted by that power; and he resolves to make them proud. Cromwell’s advisors show signs of group polarization, as every question boils down to “Is it what the King wants?”, which implies “Is it what the King wants, or what God wants?”, which means better be safe than sorry. No consensus will be reached with the parliament. And speaking of Michael Corleone, it helps that Roth is the smallest man in every room.
Aside from Sight & Sound‘s extensive assessment, most reviews seem to come out of Britain where the production was notoriously laden with semi-comical errors, none of which are evident in the resulting product. Unless you know the budget and compare it to what you see on screen, with a lot of low lighting, dependence on a few sets, a single character [Lord Denzil Holles, played by James Bolam] representing all the multifarious forms of political venality and corruption that required a dozen actors in a more sweeping film like Amazing Grace. To Kill a King starts with a battle scene, which in limited-budget style is really a post-battle scene, characters stepping over corpses, looking exhausted and having discussions in tents. There’s one action set piece later on, critical to the descent of Cromwell’s rationality, involving the pursuit and persecution of simple folk who are selling royal relics. And eventually, back to the historical record — for the scaffold scene.