Monday, July 09, 2007

Cooking, with Gusteau


[some spoilers]

There's a scene towards the end of Brad Bird's Ratatouille where sneering food critic Anton Ego (voiced with blue-blooded superciliousness by the incomparable Peter O'Toole) arrives at the up and coming restaurant Gusteau's, intending to crush its fledgling reputation under an avalanche of scorn. Served a humble peasant dish (the ratatouille from which the movie gets its title) by the restaurant's unlikely chef (a rat - yes, really, a RAT - called Remy), Ego finds his eyes filling with tears, however, as the subtle flavors of the dish bring back memories of his childhood in the French countryside and his mother's cooking.

And there, in a nutshell, you have the experience of watching Ratatouille. Silly to the point of being ludicrous, predictable to the verge of cliche, Rataouille still manages to be, magically, a deeply endearing film. Part of it is the superb animation - the rattiness of the rats, the foodiness of the food, the Paris-ness of Paris - everything, in short, that we've come to love and expect from the wizards at Pixar. Part of it is the clever, clever trick of making a movie that ends with the vicious critic eating, if not quite humble pie, then at least modest ragout, thus effectively hamstringing anyone who thinks of writing a scathing review of the film. Mostly though it's the joie de vivre of the script - the sheer exhilaration of making a deliciously simple yet entirely outrageous film based on a premise that is, in turn both simple and outrageous at the same time. This is meta-cinema at its best - the idea that people would actually enjoy food made by a rat is just about as ridiculous as the idea that people would enjoy a film about people enjoying food made by a rat, which is why you're inclined to believe it.

At its heart, Rataouille is a retelling of that oldest of creative myths - inspired young artist with no formal training and an entirely impossible background comes to big city and wows the connoisseurs, thus transcending both the establishment and his own roots. The fact that the impossible background here happens to be membership in the genus Rattus and that the art form involved is culinary is a matter of mere detail. Okay, so there's a brief period right after you walk out of the theater when you feel an overwhelming urge to reach for a skillet [1], but the exuberance that sizzles and flambes through this film has little to do with food per se. Remy's problem is not that he can't cook - that comes to him as naturally as nibbling cheese - it's that as a common pest he's rodentia non grata in every kitchen on either side of the Seine. Egged on by the imagined spirit of his culinary guru Chef Gusteau (a disappointingly un-Anatole like figure whose specialty seems to be potage de poulet pour l'ame and whose motto 'Anyone Can Cook' becomes the film's battle cry) Remy adopts a hapless garbage boy named Linguini - a limp noodle if there ever was one - and proceeds to rise to the top of the cordon bleu food chain. It sounds bizarre, I know, but somehow, between the multiple near escapes that Remy goes through, his wild adventures through the kitchen, his relationship with his old-fashioned father and one particularly brilliant slap-dashing chase through Paris, you tend not to notice.

If Ratatouille succeeds (and succeed it does, though it isn't, in my opinion, quite the movie Bird's The Incredibles was) it's because the real fantasy here isn't a rat making good as a chef, it's the idea that with sufficient inspiration and a little bit of luck we can all beat the odds and succeed at whatever it is that moves and / or inspires us, just as long as we're clear on what that is. Ratatouille may not be great cinema, but as an appetizing way to spend a Sunday morning, delicately balancing the flavors of humor, charm, fantasy and excitement, it's pretty hard to beat.

[1] In my case it lasted all of five minutes, during which I pictured myself dicing and slicing and sauteing with the casual ease of that Jackie Chan of the kitchen - Martin Yan. Then reality struck.


??! said...

"If Yan can cook, so can you!"....ohh that man is so much fun.

Anonymous said...

M. Le Falsite:

"The Paris-ness of Paris" - is this from experience or an idea of Paris? (We'll always have it; Is the Paris Hilton open to everyone etc etc).

Ah! the cooking! I even turned over an omelet on Sunday (under strict spousal supervision of course!) - such was the movie's power to make me believe in my own ratness.


Arvind said...

I want to pay you a compliment. This review reads like something written by Roger Ebert.

very well written.

Arthur Quiller Couch said...

What is meta-cinema?

Vinod Khare said...

Amazing review and I agree wholeheartedly. I was watched this movie with a friend and after it we were wondering why this movie creates such an impact despite being so cliched and stereotypical. You have nailed the reason bang on the head. It is very much the meta-cinematic aspect of the film. And it is also the myth like nature of the entire story.

But of course, it is a modern myth. Dealing with issues such are family vs. personal identity and freedom.

And of course, the animation is amazing and breathtaking. It is wondrous and magical. Just like we have come to expect of Disney-Pixar.

Falstaff said...

??!: Ummm...ya. I have been informed by aficionados of cooking shows that Martin Yan is infra dig, and that admitting to liking him means confessing to being a total philistine when it comes to cooking shows. That said, I'll agree the man was / is fun - I've never managed to watch an entire show, and wouldn't dream of following his recipes, but just the sight of him demolishing a vegetable with machine like precisions is enough to warm the cockles of my gluttonous heart.

n!: Well, if it comes down to that, I've seen more of Paris than I have of rats. At any rate, Paris-ness is not about authenticity, or rather, it's not about fidelity to the real city of Paris, but rather to the idea of Paris as epitomised in Gershwin songs and Audrey Hepburn movies.

Glad to hear of your growing culinary prowess. Did you break the eggs with one hand too?

arvind: Thanks. Though I have to say I'm not that fond of Roger Ebert.

aqc: A term I just made up, mostly because it sounded nice. What it means is basically a movie about the making of a work of art, so that protagonist's attempts to be accepted by and delight his audience in the movie are exactly paralleled by the movie's own attempt to be accepted by and delight its audience.

vinod khare: Thanks.

Arvind said...

not fond of Roger Ebert, did you say? i ask you. why are you not fond of Roger Ebert? someone who writes like this ought to be fonded of, if that is the word i wad.

My Fair Lady
It is unnecessary to summarize the plot or list the songs; if you are not familiar with both, you are culturally illiterate, although in six months I could pass you off as a critic at Cannes, or even a clerk in a good video store, which requires better taste.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
That they lose their minds while all about them are keeping theirs is a tribute to their skill.

Groundhog Day
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, in his case, doesn't creep in at its petty pace from day to day, but gets stuck like a broken record.

The Empire Strikes Back
I have no doubt there are many improvements on the soundtrack, but I would have to be a dog to hear them.

Hotel Rwanda
Deep movie emotions for me usually come not when the characters are sad, but when they are good.

these are just samples of Ebert's writings that i am sharing from the little treasure i have created over the years.

He writes well and anyone who enjoys good writing ought to be fond of him. Opinions on movies may differ, yes. but the quality of writing?