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The French comedy/drama “Delicious,” set in the 18th century just prior to the Revolution, is an airy trifle about rich meals and serving up one’s passion — provided it isn’t a form of servitude. That said, if your January is dedicated to repenting for gastronomic excesses over the holidays, director-writer Éric Besnard’s sumptuously photographed mise en scène of so much culinary mise en place may be a tad masochistic, from the first close-up of a delicate pastry to the last shot of a spit-roasted fowl glistening in firelight. But should your New Year’s watching require the occasional break from grim awards fare and grimmer real-world news, you could do a lot worse than this well-intentioned tale of mirthful mouthfuls and other appetites.
We first meet master cook Manceron (Grégory Gadebois) in his element, grandly commandeering a buzzing kitchen as it prepares an ornate feast for his haughty employer, the Duke of Chamfort (Benjamin Lavernhe), and a coterie of guests. When these snobby gourmands scoff at the chef’s inclusion of his own earthy creation, a tart made with potato and truffle — pig’s fodder, to their minds — Manceron, too proud of his invention to apologize, is summarily humiliated and fired.
Retreating to the disused rural home/inn where he first learned baking from his now-deceased father, the disgraced Manceron vows to give up his life’s calling, even as his politically minded, Rousseau-reading son, Benjamin (Lorenzo Lefèbvre), recognizes that Dad is finally free to do what he wants with his talents.
Sparking that possible renewal is the appearance of Louise (Isabelle Carré), a forthright woman with a closely guarded past who convinces the chauvinistic Manceron to take her on as an apprentice. She also believes his sparsely patronized stop for weary travelers seeking sustenance could be turned into an entirely new kind of eating place, one built around great cooking and hospitality, and meant to serve adventurous diners from all walks of life.
“Delicious,” which Besnard co-wrote with Nicolas Boukhrief, may not be the true story of how the French “restaurant” was invented. (Paris got there first.) But as fictional origin yarns go, the verdant, picturesque patch of gently sloping countryside where the movie takes place makes for a mighty photogenic and alluring fantasy version of how we fell in love with going out to eat, even if with each new clumsily scripted inspiration (What about a range of dishes? Individual tables! Sliced bread!) you half expect the movie to go ahead and dramatize the first fly ever found in someone’s soup, or air-writing to signify asking for a bill.
Everything is vibrantly performed, too, with Gadebois shading his understandable arrogance with just enough professional and personal vulnerability to give Carré plenty of room to fill the rest of the space with an eager learner’s spirit and a wise woman’s know-how. It’s as undemanding to root for their success as it is enjoyable to hate Lavernhe’s delectably dastardly Duke, whose pleasure in a meal is drawn as much from its trendy exclusivity and attractive opulence than any inherent tastiness.
Of course, the movie has its own bias toward what’s eye-catchingly beautiful. With so much attention lavished on the visual allure of hearth-lit indoors, sun-dappled outdoors and mouthwatering food prep — Jean-Marie Dreujou’s cinematography is coffee-table-book indulgent — it’s easy to forgive the wanting story logic as the stakes get raised. On the one hand, the pull Manceron still feels to dazzle the aristocracy with his skills keeps the vile Duke on the margins in a tantalizing way — especially as his power relates to the whispers of revolt in the air across France. But a late twist that heightens the possibility of revenge feels like one ingredient too many for a tale better suited to humor, warmth and awakened ardor than another version of “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.” “Delicious” thankfully realizes that, too, and sagely sticks to a comfort food vibe by the time its just desserts arrive.
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 14, Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; also available on VOD
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