El Bulli: Cooking in Progress
A Little Help
The style is what holds us. Rapt is about the kidnapping of a French tycoon in Paris, and no sooner have we felt a tinge of disappointment—what, another ransom film?—than we feel curiosity about what will happen. The people are quickly credible, but it is the electric style that convinces us of the maker’s intelligence. How could this writer-director, Lucas Belvaux, not know that he was entering familiar territory? He must have had a reason.
He has. The point takes a while to develop, but meanwhile we are basically gripped by the momentum of the story. Stanislas Graff is the fortyish head of an immense international firm—he has 130,000 employees—whom we see speeding along from engagement to engagement and from mistress to poker game. He is on his way back to his wife and two growing daughters in their mansion when a carefully planned kidnap scheme erupts, and he is bustled out of his limo, masked (as are his captors), and snatched away.
His family is of course petrified. His business colleagues, the top people, gather at once, prepared for the ransom request. The criminals, who are obviously very well prepared, send their offer. They want fifty million euros by a certain time. To prove their bona fides, they send one of Graff’s fingers, and will do so again if there is further delay.
We see the finger-lopping, which is a terrible reality, and we share Graff’s captivity, which is rough. He is kept bound a good deal of the time, and is told that if he once glimpses the face of one of his captors, he is dead. The contrast between the barbarity of his fix and the smoothness of his colleagues’ conferences is sharp.
The group of colleagues, rich as they all are, will have trouble in raising the ransom money—imperiling the company and themselves. I thought of Kurosawa’s masterpiece High and Low, in which a tycoon has to balance the worth of his company against the life of his kidnapped son. In Kurosawa, the choice alters. In Belvaux, it persists yet also alters.
The kidnappers are a group who have a prize with which they can maneuver. The corporation’s directors are another group with a choice of maneuvers—Graff or their company. Thus what has begun as a crime story becomes a kind of moral contest with the human victim viewed in more than one light.
The ending must naturally be kept mum, except to say that its crushings are of the best kind, unexpected yet predictable. Belvaux makes his point with comic bitterness: the two groups, legal and illegal, are playing in comparable ethical ballparks.
One other element sizzles. Until he is kidnapped, Graff is a normal rich man, with clothes, cars, castles, clan. His kidnapping tears his life open for the press, and France feasts on stories about his women and his huge gambling debts. During his captivity he becomes a public jape. We viewers, who are by now accustomed to a diet of sex scandal—how skimpy the day’s news seems without one!—can especially enjoy the revelation of privacies through a crime. And his value to his company changes.
Belvaux has cast his film impeccably. Vocally, first. We never see the faces of the kidnappers, but from their voices we infer that they are being extra tough rather than regular toughies. The members of the rich group are a suave chorus, rhythmically one. Anne Consigny, as Graff’s wife, has the right double air of anguish and anger, and André Marcon, as Graff’s most trusted partner, masters honest duplicity. But it is Yvan Attal as Graff who must carry the picture through all its sorts of degradation, smooth and rough, and who validates every moment.
So at last we see what Belvaux saw: that a crime story can involve more than obvious criminals. He also has an excellent camera eye for seeing the usual at an off angle. And his editor, Danielle Anezin, is up to his mark in surgical skill.
ANOTHER FILM BECOMES more than it seems at first, in two ways. By now there have been so many documentaries about restaurants that they form a film genre. Surely there is a book en route about them. But here now is El Bulli, which in some ways transcends them all, and poignantly serves as a memorial. The restaurant’s closing has lately been announced. Apparently the director, Gereon Wetzel, had no clue as he was filming that the restaurant was planning to close. The picture is presented as part of its seemingly ongoing life. Indeed, the subtitle is Cooking in Progress.
The memorial is deserved. The press tells us that in a single generation, El Bulli became a world leader. Wetzel’s film helps to explain, but it also helps us to mourn the closing, even though the vast majority of us would never have got near the place.
First, some facts. (To preserve the film’s immediacy, I use the present tense.) El Bulli is a restaurant outside Barcelona created and maintained by Ferran Adrià. It is open only six months of the year, seats fifty guests, and has about two million requests a year for reservations. We never see guests at tables; we never hear a word about prices. The picture is about the food and the makers.
It begins as the restaurant is closing down. Equipment of every sort is being packed for the move to their winter quarters in Barcelona, where work, furious work, will continue. Some dozens of white-clad men and a few women are involved, most of them young, all of them serious. Soon after, they are busy in other quarters. Ferran Adrià, always called Ferran, appears—a middle-aged man who knows what he is about—and conducts operations.
What they are doing is creating, and what they create are small dishes—something like, though more ethereal than, tapas. Instance: frozen spearmint leaves with a special oil. Meat is infrequently mentioned, except for the cartilage of a lamb’s shoulder, which seems odd by the time we get to it. New dishes are photographed at various stages of preparation; copious records are kept and entered in the computer. Few science labs could be more scrupulous.
Ferran’s approach is simple but singular. Concept is his key word. He wants a guest to feel that, when he dines at El Bulli, he is encountering creativity: each dish should seem like the discovery of imagination. Daily, his large staff works through the winter, experimenting, discarding, realizing. The ending of the film is a parade of photographs, all of which make us wish we could sample their creativity.
Ferran says that his team will operate as a culinary research institution at least until 2014. This is a spot of relief because of the deeper effect that the film has. For a time, at least, these committed people will be able to continue their commitment: presumably, afterward they will continue elsewhere. This seems to me of importance. The seriousness of chefs, of food experts in general, is now well known and widely respected, but El Bulli takes this particularized view somewhat further. A high-caliber restaurant makes clear what fashion designers and perfume blenders and many other people in comparable professions also signify. People long for beliefs and the chance to serve them. These beliefs may not all be at the level of DNA research, but they all employ talented people in the fulfillment of their talents. It is easy to ridicule Ferran and friends against Nobel Prize-winning physicists. It is also easy to recognize those millions—we all know some of them—who spend their lives in sensible jobs. Wetzel’s unintended memorial has an implicit depth.
MICHAEL J. WEITHORN the writer-director of A Little Help, says that his picture is “not a ‘9/11’ film in any formal sense,” but “the resonance of those attacks do provide an emotional backdrop for the film.” If only they did. Except for one mention of the catastrophe—and that a schoolboy’s lie—the story has nothing to do with it. The script has simply dropped its reason for being. What might have been a juxtaposition of the ordinary with the grotesque is only day-to-day.
This is a pity, because Weithorn has some ability in letting dailiness leak onto the screen. And the backdrop would have italicized it. There is one quite dramatic element. Otherwise A Little Help is like being able to hear and see what’s happening in the house next door.
The place is pleasant Long Island. The central figure is thirty-five-year-old Laura, a dental hygienist. (The first sequence makes her profession almost funny.) Her life consists of incessant dailiness, troubles with her philandering husband, combat and consolation with her twelve-year-old son, scrapings with her (married) sister and her tentacled mother. The one element that is not composed of well-rendered daily detail involves the sudden death of Laura’s husband and her attitude toward it, specifically in a looming legal sense.
Jenna Fischer gives Laura a mixture of activity in the midst of absent purpose, quite fittingly. Daniel Yelsky is lively and true in that recurrent role of the snappy comeback kid. A tender performance comes from Rob Benedict as Laura’s surprisingly interesting brother-in-law. Weithorn himself seems a director ready for bigger bites.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the August 4, 2011, issue of the magazine.