Au petit Marguery

(Laurent Bénégui, France, 1995)


One of the last remaining barriers between Art and Life has come crashing down with the advent of that curious new genre, the food movie. Films centred on the preparation and communal eating of food, from Babette’s Feast (1987) to Big Night (1996), are no longer metaphoric or symbolic in their intentions, but strictly functional. They aim to get people running off to a restaurant immediately after the screening to enjoy whatever mouth-watering cuisine they have witnessed – and they are shrewdly marketed in exactly this fashion.

Even the way these films are received and discussed becomes part of an elaborate digestive ritual. They are compared to elegant fine wines, beautifully structured three course meals or gregarious banquets. Reviewers delicately express their appreciation of these movies in terms of tasting, savouring, absorbing.

Some disgruntled commentators resent this ultimate reduction of all aesthetic experience to the pure mechanics of consumption – and even I will admit to such dark, killjoy thoughts when confronted with yet another food movie on the arthouse circuit. Yet there is something undeniable and fundamental about the cultivated pleasure these films offer their eager audiences. If you prefer junk food and junk culture, there’s always a Con Air (1997) available.

Au petit Marguery, named after the restaurant which is its principal setting, is a completely formulaic food movie. Hippolyte (Michel Aumont), chef and owner of the business with his wife Josephine (Stéphane Audran), is suffering from a cancer that is affecting his capacity to smell, and thus cook. He organises a final, bittersweet, celebratory dinner and invites a diverse bunch of family members and friends.

Naturally, there is a predictable spread of arguments, sexual liaisons, jokes and intimate conversations to fill out the evening’s elaborate meal, including some lively flashback vignettes. The food movie has its roots deep in French cinema, and so there are echoes of Jean Renoir and Louis Malle in this film’s mild touches of social conscience – such as having a homeless guy sharing the table with these bourgeois sophisticates, and allowing a glimpse of the streets riots hurtling past the restaurant window in May 1968.

Fledgling director and co-writer Laurent Bénégui lacks the skill and subtlety of his predecessors in this genre. The film is marred by an amateurish visual style – all clumsy, ungainly zoom shots – and very uninventive staging. Only near the end, when Bénégui drops the pretence to light farce, does a more melancholic mood bring some affecting, truthful moments.

But perhaps the only valid question that a critic can ask of this food movie is: will the local French restaurant trade benefit from it? And on that score, although Au petit Marguery may not ultimately be much of a film, it is certain to be good for business.

MORE food movies: A Touch of Spice, Mostly Martha

© Adrian Martin August 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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