PARIS – In barely two weeks, a rat has managed to seduce the French and convince them that perhaps not all Americans are gastronomic louts, and that there might be hope yet for bridging the transatlantic cultural divide.
“Ratatouille,” the animated Hollywood movie starring a rat who overcomes all odds to become a chef in a venerable Paris 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 – famous worldwide for mega-egos – 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 Quinzieme. Colette is a chef in the movie’s fictional restaurant.
Disparaged by the French both for its soulless fast food and Hollywood’s takeover of world film markets, the United States has discovered that the fastest route to the French heart is through the stomach.
“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 her 7-year-old daughter, Elise. “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 like sugar atop creme brulee. “One of the greatest gastronomic films in the history of cinema,” Thomas Sotinel declared 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.
Helene 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 Helene Darroze in Paris’ upscale 6th Arrondissement. Then they pelted her with questions, she recalled.
But Darroze said it wasn’t the 3-D rows of worn copper pots and gargantuan stoves – or even 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.”
In the nearly five years since French officials defied President Bush and opposed the invasion of Iraq, people here generally feel they’ve gotten little from America. They were nonplused 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 American belief that anyone can achieve dreams through hard work. The little rat chef, Remy, who repeats the same line to his garbage-eating fellow rodents, could have walked right out of a Sarkozy speech.