Georgian director Nana Djordjadze, working from a screenplay by her husband Irakli Kvirikadze, has fashioned a lightweight and intermittently incoherent fairy tale centered around that rarely welcome cinematic apparition, the Happy Lifeforce (HL). The HL is a man, always a man, somewhere past middle age, who lives life with a manic gusto, eating, drinking and screwing in copious quantity and becoming only more robust as a result. Think of it as the Anthony Quinn syndrome.
The HL in Chef is the title character, Pascal Ichac (Pierre Richard), a wandering French ex-gigolo and super gourmand traveling in pre-Soviet Georgia. One day he shares a train compartment with a princess, Cecilia Abachidze (Nino Kirtadze), an attractive young woman who, though barely a third of Pascal's age, knows a genuine HL when she sees one and so becomes his mistress. The rest of the movie follows them through various adventures, which begin in a picaresque low-comedy vein, become absurdly cartoonish once the Bolshevik revolution reaches Georgia, and then wind down into a labored sentimentality meant, one suspects, to send the viewer home in a wistful mood.
Richard, best known in the United States for his comic turn The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe (1972), and who originated the Robin Williams role in the French version of Father's Day, has gone gray and grown rotund. While his character is hardly cuddly -- true HLs are too self-absorbed to be entirely likable -- he brings a certain fussy charisma to his portrayal of the bearded epicurean. The rest of the characters are stick figures who glower with menace or glow with sensuality, whichever's required. Although the historic setting is specific, the details have a certain bedtime-story quality -- this is the sort of post-communist fable where vulgar, pillaging thugs overthrow courtly, kindly dictatorships.
The movie has a superfluous framing device involving a descendant of Pascal's who has the princess' diary of their affair. Director Djordjadze's uncertain handling of this episodic tale's various moods creates so dubious a tone that by the time the diary offers up its final revelation, what's meant to be fuzzy and warm is only blurry and tepid.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.