Vatel (2001) from  Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Two thumbs held horizontal. We both respected the movie's strengths, but found it disappointing in other ways. I think both thumbs are starting to point upward, since we both enjoyed the film on balance.

Tuna's comments in white

Vatel (2000) is a costume period piece set during the reign of Louis XIV, and centers around a royal visit to the estate of the Prince de Condé. The express purpose is for his majesty and the entire court and their pets to enjoy the country, but the real reason is to evaluate the prince as a possible general in the upcoming war with the Dutch. This would return the prince to favor with the crown, and allow the prince to repay all his debts from the royal pocketbook. The task of dazzling his majesty falls on the chief steward, Vatel (Gérard Depardieu). The newest woman at court, played by Uma Thurman catches the eye of Vatel, and he captures her with kindness and talent.

Costume period pieces are not my favorite genre, but I enjoyed this one, especially because it looked so good. Costumes, set decoration/art direction and photography were superb, as was the transfer. It was nominated for Best art direction by the Academy. The film is also highly anti-establishment, poking fun at all the royals. Grading is difficult. As a period piece, it doesn't hold up well. The humor, for the most part, is too low-key for the average viewer, but it looks too good to award less than a C.


Actually quite a bit for a PG-13 movie.

Uma Thurman nearly falls out of her top when running to the king's quarters, but nothing is seen clearly except massive cleavage. Uma's character also has a dark topless scene in silhouette, but it doesn't look like Uma's body and is probably a body double.

Four water-nymphs are seen in various stages of dance in which their breasts show through their costumes and a nipple emerges from one of the costumes.

There is an r-rated European version in which in breasts of Marine Delterme and Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu are seen, but don't expect to see that in the North American DVD version.

 Scoop's comments in yellow

They had something pretty good going here, but they couldn't quite deliver it.

  • It has beautiful costumes and sets, as Tuna noted.
  • It presents an interesting and (I think) realistic slice-of-court in three days of the Sun King's early reign. It shows how a general could become a general through means unrelated to military abilities. It portrays the court schemes, lusts, and intrigues, showing the various relationships among sex, money, and power.
  • It shows how the future revolution was sown by the the seeds of discontent being planted in this era: the cavalier treatment of those lacking aristocratic roots, the frivolous wastefulness of the rich, the trivial pastimes and exiguous honor among the ruling classes. In fact, it shows that Mel Brooks' portrayal of the era in History of the World was pretty damned accurate. Louis doesn't have a piss-boy on hand, but he does have an official T.P. servant who wipes the royal bumhole after a particularly strained semi-public excretion. In fact, the royal damsels do indeed have their piss-girls to remove their fluids. And while peasants don't get used for skeet shooting, they do get flogged for harmless offenses. It's good to be the king.
  • It shows accurately the emergence of the middle class, the steward class, in Europe. The royals and nobles were enmeshed in their intrigues, their wars, and their play, and they had scant time to manage agricultural output, supervise fisherman, build and repair buildings, negotiate with outside craftsmen, and all the humdrum tasks that needed to be done to maintain their great estates. So a managerial rank appeared to take care of such things, and this formed the earliest emergence of a middle-class. Francois Vatel's special responsibility was entertainment, and he was the master of it. He would build fireworks shows, arrange competitions, create sumptuous feasts, put on musicals and other spectacles, arrange the flowers and ice sculptures - all the things necessary to make the jaded courtiers happy, amused, satisfied, and full. These activities were difficult enough under any circumstances, but in this film he has to do it without the money to pay for it, on the promise that his master would repay all the craftsman if his position with the king were to be solidified.

Vatel is played by Gerard Depardieu. Frankly this was a mistake. The qualifications for playing a Frenchman in this movie were centered around the ability to affect an unaccented period English to substitute for the French spoken by the real court. Sadly, France's most famous actor was woefully underqualified to play a Frenchman in this film. He runs around speaking barely comprehensible English with a French accent, all of which begs the question of why the other Frenchman don't have French accents. 

He is also the lust object of a foppish royal and a beautiful courtesan. Huh? Depardieu as a love god? I don't know where the big guy has been since he had his health problems, but I know it wasn't in a gym. He has now achieved a size where he could play the chubbier brother of either Marlon Brando or "Free" Willie. I mean this guy is enormous. He is an entire urban settlement, and is starting to establish suburbs. 

And (sigh) he can't deliver a line correctly in English, but how do you direct him? How would you do it? How do you go up to France's greatest living film icon and tell him he's doing a lousy job at playing a Frenchman who was probably a lot like himself? I don't know, and neither did Roland Joffe, the director, who simply let Depardieu's role degenerate into running around in a Big and Tall Man's muu-muu, barking orders and solutions to his crewmen. In a typical scene, Depardieu wanders among the craftsmen, showing the carpenters how to use pine as an oak substitute, showing the chefs how to create a better sauce with fewer eggs, telling the actors to be the tree and the golfers to be the ball, showing the painters how to mix a richer shade of gold by using a different grade of bitumen, and expounding to the children on the 500 known types of pears. At one point, I think he corrected the priests for poor communion-dispensing techniques "I want to see more wrist-action with that wafer, mon bishop". Basically, he combined the knowledge and talents of Charles Darwin, Carolus Linneaus, Escoffier, Martha Stewart, Rembrandt, Bob Fosse, Jesus, and Lee Iococca.  

Plus, he has some serious big-ass cojones. When the king summons Vatel to congratulate him, the big guy is busily supervising a show, and he tells the messenger "not now! does the king think all of this happens by itself?" What a guy! No wonder everybody at the banquet wanted to fuck him despite his 400 pounds of jiggling flesh.

By the way, Vatel was a real historical character, and this story is semi-fictional, semi-historical.

During the course of the king's weekend in the country, three men all formed lustful attachments to beautiful Uma Thurman: the sun king himself (played with cunning and slimy panache by Julian Sands), the king's right hand man and leading court intriguer (played with smarmy conniving by Tim Roth, precisely the same character he played in Rob Roy, in very similar costumes), and old Depardieu himself. Uma wants the honest, compassionate Depardieu, but she also must run when the king calls, and ultimately is blackmailed into sex by the intriguer.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • quite a good transfer, but no extra features except a small featurette on costumes

The overriding irony of the film is that the king is so suitably impressed by the weekend's entertainments, that he wants Vatel himself, far more than he wants the generalship of Vatel's master. Vatel is told to get his jumbo ass to Versailles, where he can hope to apply his genius and imagination toward amusing the royals non-stop. Unfortunately, Vatel can't abide the empty-headed nobles, and he just can't bear to leave his dedicated team of craftsmen, so he must find a solution. That's the dramatic hook of the film, such as it is.

The film's greatest visual splendor comes from the fact that the weekend's activities are shown in some detail - plays, ice sculptures, fireworks, hunts, inane competitions, banquets - and are shown from the dual perspective of the nobles who enjoy the finished product in unblemished elegance, and the craftsmen who produce the works-in-progress in rat-filled back rooms just on the other side of the walls from where the rich cavort.

The film is worth watching because it seems to be an accurate history lesson about how things really worked, and it is worth watching because it is visually spectacular. It isn't a great movie, but I found the disappointments tolerable in light of those strengths.

The Critics Vote

  • they never got it out to the major reviewers, except in New York City

  • it was nominated for an Oscar (Best Art Direction)

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 26% positive overall, 33% from the top critics.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.4 
  • With their dollars ... it cost a fairly substantial amount ($36 million) to make, and was the opening film at Cannes, but the USA marketing plan was virtually abandoned by Miramax after they rushed to acquire the rights at Cannes. Screened briefly on two screens, it grossed less than $50,000.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics - or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C (Tuna) to C+ (Scoopy).

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