In barely two weeks, a rat has managed to seduce the French and convince them that there might be hope yet for bridging the trans-Atlantic...
PARIS — In barely two weeks, a rat has managed to seduce the French and convince them that there might be hope yet for bridging the trans-Atlantic cultural divide.
“Ratatouille,” the animated Hollywood movie starring a rat who overcomes all odds to become a master chef in a venerable Parisian restaurant, is defying stiff odds itself. Its Aug. 1 premiere in France drew the fourth-highest opening-day attendance in French movie history.
Reviewers, viewers and even the country’s top chefs are gushing over the movie’s technical accuracy and attention to culinary detail.
“When Colette teaches the young cook how you cut onions, how you cook vegetables in a pan, how you season everything — that’s it, that’s how we do it!” said television celebrity chef Cyril Lignac, owner of the trendy bistro Le Quinzième. Colette is a chef in the movie’s fictional restaurant.
The United States, disparaged by the French for its fast food and Hollywood’s takeover of world film markets, has discovered that the fastest route to the French heart is through the stomach. Perhaps only in France could a movie about food draw such blockbuster attendance on opening day, surpassed only by “Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar,” “Men in Black” and “Spider-Man.”
“Of course it resembles the usual Disney films, but it has more taste,” said Christiane Fillet, 37, who watched the movie this week at Les Halles cinema in Paris with daughter Elise, 7. “I cook, and I can tell you that they know what they’re talking about. I didn’t expect such gastronomical knowledge from an American cartoon!”
French movie reviewers, too, have melted. “One of the greatest gastronomic films in the history of cinema,” Thomas Sotinel said in the often stuffy daily newspaper Le Monde.
The creators of the cartoon spent weeks scrutinizing some of the most prominent chefs and kitchens in Paris.
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“The Pixar team came to my restaurant, Le Quinzième, several times,” said Lignac, referring to the animation studio that made the film. “They set microphones in my kitchens and recorded the atmospheres at different times of the day. I have a guest table with a direct view on the kitchen. While they were eating, they could see us in action.”
Hélène Darroze, one of the two top-ranked female chefs in France, whose cheese plate inspired a course depicted in the movie, said the film crew set up two cameras in her two-star Restaurant Hélène Darroze in Paris’ upscale 6th Arrondissement and later pelted her with questions.
But Darroze said it wasn’t the 3-D rows of worn copper pots and gargantuan stoves — or her own cheese plate — that captivated her heart when she watched the film.
“It is a movie about passion,” she said. “We as cooks understand that, in the kitchen, everyone can live this passion, even if you’re a rat.”
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“What makes the difference is that it’s a declaration of love to France, Paris — and good food,” said Guillemette Odicino-Olivier, film critic for Télérama, a weekly magazine that publishes some of the most feared film critiques in the French media. “People like it so much because Paris is depicted the way we would like it to be, with kitsch references mixed with elements that are more contemporary.”
In the nearly five years since French officials opposed the invasion of Iraq, the French generally think they have gotten little from the United States. They were nonplussed at the U.S. movement to take the French out of fries and refer to them as freedom fries. They were appalled at Americans pouring French wines down the sink in protest.
“Ratatouille” opened in 721 French theaters. At the same time, newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy is beseeching his countrymen to embrace the U.S. belief that anyone can achieve dreams through hard work. The little rat chef, Rémy, who repeats the same line to his garbage-eating fellow rodents, could have walked right out of a Sarkozy speech.
Darroze said she is convinced the film could help France’s ailing professional kitchens, which are increasingly shunned by young workers because of the long hours and arduous working conditions. “We need more chefs,” she said.
French chefs who opened their kitchens and revealed their life stories to the movie producers said they wish their real-life French critics would follow the path of the film’s Anton Ego, who the Paris media allege is modeled after the acerbic food critic at the daily newspaper Le Figaro.
Ego, who has an uncanny resemblance to Dracula, is transformed by the rat chef’s signature dish of ratatouille, a savory mélange of garlic, zucchini, bell pepper, eggplant and tomatoes. It transports him back to his mother’s kitchen table and makes him give up his life of gastronomic negativism.
The chefs also were willing to take the movie’s depiction of themselves with a slice of humor.
“I really liked the way the film managed to mock French chefs by using a rat,” said TV chef Lignac. “Of course, I would be terrified if I found a rat in my kitchen.”