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Half-Baked Chef in Love

Chef in Love
Youri Metchitov

Cooking Up Trouble: Cecilia (Nino Kirtadze) and Pascal (Pierre Richard) share a contemplative moment in Georgia before the purges.

Episodic culinary adventure needed more time in the script oven

By Richard von Busack

A NABOKOVIAN TALE OF MEMORY and long-buried family secrets, nailed together with stories of cooking, A Chef in Love includes long pans over groaning tables. As a motif, this loving culinary excess is starting to be uncomfortably reminiscent of the food-porn that the starvelings of the future watch in Soylent Green. Nana Djordjadze's film is pleasurable enough for the first two-thirds, but then the story transforms itself into magical-realist bathos--The Last Laugh without Emil Jannings.

In present-day Paris, gallery owner Anton Gogloladze (Jean-Yves Gautier) is assembling a show of the work of Pirosmani, an artist from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, when he meets Marcelle (Micheline Presle). The aged lady is the descendent of a hero of Anton's: the author, opera singer, gigolo and all-around Edwardian reprobate Pascal Ichac (Pierre Richard). Ichac was also a master chef whose sense of smell was so keen that he once uncovered a bomb plot against a politician simply by detecting the odor of magnesium. Marcelle has a copy of Ichac's authoritative book on Georgian cuisine, as well as some personal notes of the author, and so we flashback to Ichac's picaresque adventures in Georgia in the 1920s.

Ichac opens the New Eldorado, the first French restaurant seen in those parts, but revolution is about to break out. A conniving innkeeper whom Ichac insulted is poised to become master of the local Communist Party, and he has his eye on Ichac's mistress, Cecilia (Nino Kirtadze), who, to close the circle, is Anton's mother, murdered before his eyes when he was a child. Richard, the noted French comedian who starred in The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, La Chevre and Les Comperes, is an agreeable presence who has one robustly comic moment: warring with a fellow opera singer over whether his aria should be cut merely so they can make the last train out of the provinces.

In the early scenes, Richard's Ichac evokes a long-lost time when a man could be a real dilettante--before all of this damned specialization that's made life so boring. The old man has an appealing smile like Gene Hackman's, and as seen through Djordjadze's loving camera, Georgia bids to become the next Tuscany, with lots of sun-dappled hills, oak trees and succulent grapes. To give this episodic film weight, Djordjadze focuses in the last third on how bad things became under communism. Georgia, the sunniest place in the Russian Empire, was also the birthplace of Stalin, and so Djordjadze really pours on the sexually perverse commissars and their unwomanized, shaven-headed assistants. He ends up ruining the film's finish with his political heavy-handedness. The Soviets here are uglier than they were in Jack Webb's Red Nightmare. The last 45 minutes are so ruinously bathetic that the shift in mood makes clear the disjointed nature of the film and how jarring the transitions are between the flashbacks and the main part of the narrative. A Chef in Love is tasty in parts, but if it were a main course, you'd send it back to the kitchen.

A Chef in Love (PG-13; 95 min.), directed by Nana Djordjadze; written by Irakli Kvirikadze, photographed by Guiorgui Beridze and starring Pierre Richard and Nino Kirtadze.

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From the May 8-14, 1997 issue of Metro

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