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Starring Gerard Depardieu, Uma Thurman, Tim Roth, Julian Glover, Julian Sands
Original Screenplay by Jeanne Labrune
English Adaptation by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Roland Joffe

IN SHORT: Spectacular production values overwhelm the story. [Rated PG-13 for sexual content and some violence. 110 minutes]

"Dear Sir," says the letter, "The King is coming to stay with you for three days. Don't go to any extraordinary trouble..." Translated on the screen for those of us that don't have a working knowledge of pre-French Revolution manners, that means "bankrupt yourself and the surrounding countryside to show His Majesty a good time or else." So begins Vatel, the true story of the man saddled with the job of organizing and executing the Festivities to Entertain His Majesty's Court. To be brutally honest, the film is a visual feast for the eyes, and everything in the six words following IN SHORT: holds true.

There is no question that the producers of this film spend a fortune recreating the pomp and absolute luxury of court life. The costumes, settings, the mansion and staged extravaganzas drip money. Visual junkies will need to see Vatel on the big screen to get their fix -- HDTV doesn't make screens big enough to provide a reasonable alternative.

Francois Vatel (Gerard Depardieu) is Steward to the almost bankrupt and out of favor Prince de Condé (Julian Glover). The Prince's only value to the Kingdom of France is his skill as a military general. The possibility of war with Holland offers the opportunity for the Prince to have the Kingdom pay off his debt and fill his coffers for services in kind. When King IV (Julian Sands) and his Court come for a three day romp in the country, it is Vatel's duty to ensure that the entertainment is fit for a King. This means pleasing the King's advance man, the Marquis de Lauzun (Tim Roth) -- a thoroughly miserable excuse for a human being -- and protecting the young boys on his staff from the King's brother (Murray Lachlan Young).

Joining the Court is Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman), one of a number of fine young ladies who seek to rise up the ranks by pleasing the King on the nights that he doesn't have to do his duty with his wife. Getting to the King means going through de Lauzun, which the lady Anne is not about to do. Thus, we are introduced to the sexual politics of the Court, even as Anne and Vatel discover that they are impossibly attracted to each other. If we follow this correctly, Steward is a position that puts Vatel far above the rank of Peasant while it keeps him properly subservient as an employee. If he does his job well, there is the tempting possibility that the King will elevate him to the lower ranks of the nobility. That would mean a relocation to the spanking new center of government at Versailles, which Vatel does not want to do.

If he does his job well, how can he refuse the beneficence of the King? Thus the dilemma and the second part of what should have been a solid story. If you don't catch on to the intricacies and politics of pre-Revolution French life, Vatel fails to tell its story in a clear and concise manner. For a film that runs less than two hours, we felt as if we had been sitting for three.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Vatel, he would have paid...


Every once in a while we need to re-explain the way we rate movies. Sometimes there are projects which demand that you see them on a big screen, even if you wait six weeks for a cheaper ticket at a second-run theater. This is one of those projects.

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