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Weekly Alibi "A Chef In Love"

Food For Thought

By Angie Drobnic

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  Perhaps it is the magic of food--it can transcend its primal purpose of nourishment to become an experience of sensual ecstasy--that makes it so ripe for cinematic portrayal. Recently, Big Night wowed audiences with its story of two restaurateur brothers staking their fortune on one grandiose meal. The top grossing foreign film of all time, Like Water for Chocolate, portrayed cooking as a outlet for thwarted emotions. The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover, directed by Peter Greenaway of recent Pillow Book fame, used the culinary arts to tell a surreal yet profoundly moving tragedy of love and vengeance. A Chef in Love follows the tradition of using food as the poetic symbol for a story of ambition, love and strife.

The titular character is Pascal Ichac, a truly renaissance man who has been a gigolo, a world traveler, an opera singer and most notably a cook. His love affair is told via flashback, when his niece seeks out the son of his Georgian lover, Princess Cecilia Abachidze. Georgia, a republic of the former Soviet Union, has a long tradition of instability and insanity, particulary from a literary point of view. (For reference, Greek mythology's Medea traditionally hails from Georgia; in a fit of jealousy over her husband's infidelity, she uses her powers as a sorceress to get back at him by killing their own children.) In A Chef in Love, Pascal and Cecilia adventure through Georgia until they settle in the capital city of Tbilisi to open the restaurant of Pascal's dreams, the New Eldorado.

Pascal and Cecilia's alliance remains, for the most part, romantically unexplained. There is none of the American passion for analyzing or "processing" their relationship; they are merely wildly in love, and it is only until much later in their affair that dissatisfaction and friction begin to occur. And the film carries off the beginning of their relationship with a refreshing aesthetic ease. Their affair is in the tradition of the grossly overhyped The English Patient, but the characters' unexplained love for each other is infinitely more believable. Pascal and Cecilia simply enjoy each others' company, and the celebration of their relationship continues through rural restaurants, the national opera and other experiences.

Of course, as it is with all great romantic movies, we know trouble is brewing. Soon after Pascal opens his restaurant, Cecilia becomes disturbed by the time he dedicates to his art as a chef. The couple becomes a victim of the times--the 1920s--when the communist revolution reaches Georgia, throwing Pascal's chosen work into the reviled category of bourgeoisie decadence.

The scenery of Georgia provides a stunning and varied backdrop for the action of the film. Night trains, day trips, theaters and mountains are all stunningly photographed, so that the scenes are crisp and clear yet retain an almost antique look reflecting the time period. The food that dominates the film is equally well captured, from the squealing pigs of the countryside to the gourmet cuisine of the city. French actor Pierre Richard and Georgian Nino Kirtadze play the lovers with enthusiastic abandon; Richard particularly has a vitality that makes it easy to see how a significantly younger woman would fall in love with him.

A Chef in Love reaches a more profound philosophical level toward the end of the film: When one is an artist such as Pascal, how far should one go to remain true to the spirit of that art? As Pascal loses his abilities to practice his cooking, he finds hope in small forms of rebellion and communication with others. But the film questions whether these small moments are enough to sustain an artist, much less a lover. In the end, the audience must be the judge, for the film serves up no easy answers--which makes A Chef in Love a satisfying dish indeed.

--Angie Drobnic

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