2001, PG, 107 min. Directed by Sandra Nettelbeck. Starring Martina Gedeck, August Zirner, Maxime Foerste, Sergio Castellitto, Ulrich Thomsen.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 13, 2002
When it comes to cooking for the masses, the jaunty theme music to the little-seen but immensely appetizing BBC Channel 4 comedy Chef! said it all: It's a very “serious profession.” Like Lenny Henry's tyrannically perfectionist Gareth Blackstock, Gedeck's Martha Klein flirts with kitchen fascism, fixing her mixing bowls with a steely gaze and lambasting the customer foolhardy enough to question her foie gras. She is, in a word, driven, although whether it's by a love of food or a terror of disorder -- both her kitchen and its staff are relentlessly immaculate in dress and deed -- is a question yet resolved. In therapy at the behest of her employer, she recites recipes and ingredients with a mouth-watering licentiousness that borders on the Freudian. Mostly Martha (in German, with subtitles) shares the foodie's eroticized vision of mealtime as playtime with such other combustible comestible films as Big Night and Babette's Feast, but there's more at work in this gorgeous and affecting picture than simple culinary sex appeal. To begin with, the single Martha finds herself the guardian of 8-year-old niece Lina (Foerste) after the sudden death of the girl's mother. That a child, even one sharing common DNA, would impinge on Martha's over-regimented life and work, is, for her, more of a shock than the death of her sister. That she adapts as well as she does speaks volumes of her resourcefulness (born, doubtless, in the kitchens of yore) and thus begins an inexorable defrosting. Lina, both scared and scarred by her tenuous situation, casts baleful scowls at her newfound guardian; she's not sure what to make of this too-starched woman and her über-tidy apartment, but like a torch to the crème brulee, things begin to heat up. In the work kitchen, as well: In the wake of Martha's new responsibilities, her boss hires a new sous chef to assist her. Mario (Castellitto) arrives with a boom box under his arm and a gleam in his eye. At first it's difficult to tell if he's supposed to be a comic construct -- up to this point Nettelbeck's film has been sparing in its use of outright humor (Martha's kitchen borders on grim Teutonic productivity) and continues in a serious vein despite the introduction of what would otherwise be seen as the Wacky Chef. Nettelbeck's alliterative subtext -- food equals love, life, and longing -- is more or less obvious from the get-go, but the excellent performance from Gedeck and Castellitto belie the film's straightforward nature. This is a film about repression as much as expression, and as Martha thaws to the world around her -- the world outside her kitchen -- she radiates a wellspring of vitality from within. Of course, she's only human and hardly as appealing as the myriad edible concoctions that litter Nettelbeck's filmic table like diamonds on the Lomonosov plain, but hey, nobody's perfect.