The Other Son & Haute CuisineApril 27, 2013
‘Switched at birth’ was a favourite plot device for Gilbert and Sullivan. It resolved a lot of tricky dilemmas and allowed true love to overcome barriers of class and kinship. By now the theme might seem as corny as a Victorian operetta, but a good device can always be relied upon for new twist.
The Other Son, by French director, Lorraine Lévy, takes this wellworn idea and applies it to the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It’s a scenario fraught with danger for any filmmaker. Beyond the obvious problem of whether the story shows a partiality to one side or the other, there is the temptation to succumb to liberalist sentimentality. You know the routine: “Arab or Jew, we’re all human beings, so why can’t we live together in peace and harmony?”
Lévy doesn’t escape this humanistic fog entirely, but the movie is handled so skilfully one never becomes conscious of a moral or a message. For this, one must give credit to a smart, understated script, and superb performances from the leading actors.
The story begins in Tel-Aviv, with 18-year old Joseph Silberg (Jules Sitruk) taking a blood test as part of a medical for his compulsary military service. When his blood group is found to be different to that of both parents, his mother, Orith, (Emmanuelle Devos) a French-trained doctor, sets out to solve the mystery. Upon investigation it appears that Joseph was accidentally swapped with another newborn baby, while both mothers were evacuated from a hospital in Haifa during a Gulf War bombing raid.
Shock, horror, the other family is Palestinian and reside on the west bank. Their high-achiever son, Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi), has been studying to be a surgeon in Paris, and is soon to return home. Joseph, by contrast, is a dreamer and would-be musician.
To draw out every drop of pathos, Joseph’s father, Alon Silberg (Pascal Elbé) is a commander in the Israeli army, while his opposite number, Saïd Al Bezaaz (Khalifa Natour) is a trained engineer who has never been able to put his skills to good use because of the occupation. The two men have violently opposed views. In Saïd’s case these views have been passed on to another son, Bilal (Mahmud Shalaby), who is a militant hothead.
It is left to Orith, and to Yacine’s mother, Leïla (Areen Omari), to try and reconcile their families to these traumatic revelations. When the sons are told, they are staggered. Having been brought up with the certainty of one identity, they now have to embrace its antithesis. When Joseph goes to see the Rabbi he learns that despite having observed all the correct rituals, including the Bar-Mitzvah, he is technically no longer a Jew.
Harder still is the Rabbi’s verdict that Joseph’s counterpart, Yacine, is unquestionably a Jew. This is a dreadful thought for the Al Bezaaz family, who realise they have raised a Jewish cuckoo in a Muslim nest.
This movie could have degenerated into the most dire melodrama, but the characters’ responses are consistently plausible and true-to-life. Both fathers feel a momentary repugnance with sons they have cherished since birth. The boys have the same mixed reactions. Joseph feels he is no longer a Jew, but will never be an Arab. Yacine seems fascinated by the experience of life ‘on the other side’ – viewing the impoverished, sequestered west bank from the perspective of prosperous Tel-Aviv, where he may now come and go as he pleases. As for Bilal, he must get used to having a new brother who doesn’t speak Arabic, while coming to terms with Yacine’s change of identity, which he can’t help seeing as a betrayal.
One of the most vivid scenes is when Yacine helps Orith, his biological mother, to pick up her fallen bicycle. The electricity that passes between them is almost indefinable – partly the pent-up love of a mother for a long-lost child, but there is also a trace of sexual tension.
This is a film of tense silences, in which characters grapple with momentous upheavals in their lives. Up to this point it has been easy to imagine that being Jewish or Muslim is an absolute, but the discovery of the switch throws such certainties into crisis. Ingrained beliefs and attitudes are contradicted by the love that exists between parents and children. In this microcosmic mirror of the stand-off between Israel and Palestine, there is a necessary cessation of hostilities. The two parties must learn to co-exist or everything is lost.
It would be too simplistic to see this as Lévy’s solution to the tensions in the Holy Land. There is so much hatred and fanaticism on both sides it would take more than shared family ties to close the gap.
One reads the director’s thoughts most clearly in a scene when the boys stand together in front of a mirror.
“Isaac and Ishmael – Abraham’s two children,” says Yacine. Isaac was the chosen son, Ishmael an outcast who is traditionally seen as the forefather of the Arab nations. The rivalry between Isaac and Ishmael is often portrayed as the root of the age-old disagreement between the Jews and the Arabs. For Joseph and Yacine, who have a foot in both camps, there is no way of telling one brother from the other.
Programs about food and cookery seem to occupy such a huge amount of television airtime it is hardly surprising the same culinary obsessions should spill over into the cinema. Over the years there have been enough films devoted to food to fill out the menu of several festivals. Think of La Grande Bouffe, Babette’s Feast, Tampopo, Julie & Julia, The Chef, and so on.
Haute Cuisine stands with the best of these foody flicks. (The French title, Les Saveurs du Palais, puns on the word “palais” which means both ‘palace’ and ‘palate’.) It is possibly the only example of the genre which combines gastronomy with the power politics of high office. The result is a subtle, compelling comedy that has the tantalising air of historical truth.
The film is a fictionalised version of the real-life experiences of Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch, a renowned provincial cook and cooking instructor, who was plucked from the Périgord in south-west France to become the personal chef for President Francois Mitterrand. Haute Cuisine was one of the hits of the recent French Film Festival, which welcomed Madame Mazet-Delpeuch as a guest.
Director, Christian Vincent, chooses to begin the story in Antarctica, where chef, Hortense Laborie, has gone to work for a year, after leaving her job at the Palais d’Élysée. This has the effect of quickly establishing the uncompromising parameters of our heroine’s personality. From the President’s kitchen to a workingmen’s mess at the other end of the planet, she retains the same exacting standards. It is a great role for Catherine Frot, who is always good, but has probably never had a better opportunity to display her talents.
Hortense’s two years in the Élysée are relayed to us as long, elaborate flash-backs, but the film slips so easily between past and present it could all be happening at once. It is a story of office politics and fine dining, of a search for excellence at war with bureaucratic procedures.
Hortense’s main enemy in her role as personal chef to the President, is Pascal Lepiq (Brice Fournier), the head of the Élysées kitchens, who views her as a trespasser on his domain. In time she will grow frustrated by bean-counters and over-protective officialdom. Her most fervent ally is the President himself, played by octogenarian novelist, Jean d’Omesson, with a flair that puts professional actors to shame.
Monsieur le Président is never referred to by name, and there is no attempt whatsoever to make him resemble Mitterrand. Every time he appears, the President’s rapturous memories of meals and cookery books are recited like poetry. It’s so seductive perhaps more politicians should try this tactic. Can you imagine Tony Abbott waxing lyrical about a truffle?
Inevitably it is the dishes Hortense creates that will arrest viewers’ attention, and send them off to find a French restaurant. The first meal is cabbage stuffed with salmon, and from that point the President and the audience are conquered.
This is a film with a light touch but there is a serious lesson about the perfectionism of those who excel in the kitchen. We see there is no substitute for fresh, natural ingredients, and no room for dishes that are simply ‘good enough’. Watching Hortense and her assistant, Nicholas (Arthur Dupont), trying to achieve a particular flavour and texture with a dessert is like watching the Curies striving to isolate radium.
Hortense is artist, scientist and something of a mother-substitute, but the bureaucrats who surround her are mere technicians. Her passionate pursuit of haute cuisine is contrasted with their mechanical approach to the smooth functioning of the Palace. She touches the President’s soul by pleasing his palate, but learns he is just as powerless as she is to resist the strictures of his minders. It’s sad to realise that those skills which appeal so strongly to the body have little impact on the body politic.
The Other Son, France, rated M, 110 mins
Haute Cuisine, France, rated M, 105 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, April 27, 2013