on December 25, 2000 by Lael Loewenstein
   A visually sumptuous period drama, "Vatel" is as remarkable for its lavish onscreen excesses as it is for its thoroughly uninvolving story. Gaumont spent $37 million to make this French costume piece--nearly a king's ransom by French industry standards--and Miramax, in a surprise move, snapped up stateside rights on the Cannes Festival's opening day. But tepid reactions to the initial screenings prompted some to speculate that Miramax made the bid largely to garner attention, since laurels and sizable financial returns will be a longshot.

   Gerard Depardieu plays the titular character, a chief steward to the physically and politically enfeebled Prince de Condé. In the hope of improving his status, Condé has invited Louis XIV and the entire court of Versailles to visit him in Chantilly. He leaves the arrangements to Vatel, who envisions a splashy three day extravaganza of feasting and merriment to impress even the decadent Sun King. Along the way, Vatel earns many admirers, including the beautiful Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman), the King (Julian Sands) and his brother. But he also provokes the envy of the Marquis de Lauzin (Tim Roth), who covets Anne himself. Vatel's accomplishments are stunning, to be sure; he concocts ravishing combinations of food, decoration and entertainment the likes of which Martha Stewart never even dreamed.

   Casting Depardieu as the steward Vatel is itself an interesting choice. By now the veteran star can play everything from kings to commoners and he does bring a quiet dignity and grace to the extravagant proceedings. But Roth and Thurman almost seem to be in a different movie altogether: They stand around like window dressing, primping, preening and posing, but they never betray any real depth of character, and the love triangle is never emotionally engaging. Director Roland Joffe, with the help of DP Robert Fraisse and production designer Jean Rabasse, has created a glorious piece of eye candy, but in the end it leaves you feeling undernourished.    Starring Gerard Depardieu, Uma Thurman and Tim Roth. Directed by Roland Joffe. Written by Jeanne Labrune and Tom Stoppard. Produced by Alain Goldman and Roland Joffe. A Miramax release. Period drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 117 min.

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