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King Georges, Erika Frankel's debut feature documentary, is mostly about one man, the French chef Georges Perrier, and one restaurant, the now-shuttered Philadelphia classic Le Bec-Fin, which made up the work of his life. Of course, the film — like all art worth the appellation — is about much more than that, too. It takes one man's journey down the drain to enter the vast sewer system that connects all of mankind's emotional outflow.
Like King Lear or The Wrestler, this is a tale of the tail-end; of how a king grapples with his kingdom crumbling; to what higher ground he rushes, seeking stability; to what fictions he clings like sheets to maintain his modesty and sense of power. It's a devastating thing to watch, pathetic but beautiful too. Sunsets are always the most bewitching hour of the day.
Like King Lear, this is a tale of the tail-end; of how a king grapples with his kingdom crumbling.
Le Bec-Fin was, as we're told in the film by the holy trinity of haute cuisine talking heads — Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, in separate wistful interviews — one of the last classic French restaurants in the country. According to Perrier, who has the same fierce and slightly shocked-seeming expression as a bald eagle, it was the only real French restaurant for many years before it closed in 2012. The tablecloths were white; the service formal; the stemware legion. The opulence was itself opulent. Every other phrase on the menu was "black truffle" or "foie gras." There was so much butter and cream in Perrier's cuisine he must have kept the udders of entire herds of heifers sore.
Frankel began filming in 2011 which, unbeknownst to anyone, was Stage IV in the life of the restaurant. I know not what film she was thinking about making, but the knowledge — despite the proclamations by Perrier that the public will return to the classics — that Le Bec-Fin's end was imminent imbues the 79 minutes of the film with an electric dramatic irony.
Nowhere is this sense of impermanence more keenly felt that in Perrier's toxic incantations on the line. Frankel seems to delight in capturing Perrier at his most bilious. Screaming at his staff with exaggerated eye rolls and grimaces, barking orders, cursing, name-calling, just some loathsome stuff. He screams, he stutters with rage. He repeats orders with a voracious impatience. His rage reaches through the screen to strangle the viewer at home. This apoplectic rage is a familiar scene in kitchens, especially kitchens organized along the lines of the French brigade and especially with chefs trained in the sadistic ways of the old world. It's a mythos often romanticized, but in King Georges one really feels the weighty toll such rage takes.
Because now is now and we know what we know, and three years later, the building that housed Le Bec-Fin is on track to become a Warby Parker, where young Philadelphians will browse optical frames, blind to the history of the place. With that in mind, two things about Perrier's anger are brought startlingly home.
First, that it's futile. The whole thing: his histrionics, the meltdown over galettes de crab, the pain over non-warmed-up pain. His screaming didn't bring any patrons back, nor did it revive the halcyon days of French fine dining in America. In fact, as someone notes in the film, that whole screaming chef in the kitchen thing played well in the 1970s but — as Marc Forgione can testify — wears thin these days. Even worse, there was no greater end to Perrier's wrath. And if it didn't lead to anything, if there was no redemptive quality to it, then it is just terrible noise, bad juju that he spilled into the world.
The other thing that Le Bec-Fin's closure adds to the reading of Perrier's anger is the reinforcement that anger comes from weakness and is itself a weakness. Perrier knows his sun is setting, and his struggle for the remains of the day is the central drama of King Georges. Surely this isn't what Dylan Thomas had in mind when he wrote "rage, rage against the dying of the light" — although Thomas lived to only 39, so who knows? Maybe it was. At any rate, Perrier toggles between a Masada mentality and moments of clarity.
It was in one such moment, I imagine, he offered young Nicholas Elmi, a tall baby-faced beefcake of a chef, the position of chef. Elmi, who went on to win Top Chef, is like the son and the father of Perrier. And the relationship between the two men turns this film from crushing tragedy to something resembling uplifting or, at least, warmly human.
It’s as beautiful, plain, and real a moment as has ever been captured on film.
After Le Bec-Fin shutters and Elmi opens his acclaimed restaurant Laurel on East Passyunk Avenue, Perrier visits the kitchen to help make pate en croute. Up to this point in the film, all the French cuisine we've seen has been a product of rage, eaten in a debilitating atmosphere of a decaying world. Here, in the last few minutes of the film, with Perrier calling Elmi "my chef" as he pinches a puff pastry over farcie, it's as if the chains of anger have been replaced with suffuse joy. It's as beautiful, plain, and real a moment as has ever been captured on film.
Historically things don't seem to end too well for guys named King George. But this story seems to have a happy ending. Throughout his saga, Perrier frequently calls Le Bec-Fin his life. "It's my mistress. It's my wife. It's my burden but it's truth," he says. But it's only after he loses it that he truly seems to come alive. He's a curmudgeon certainly but a lovable one, who whispers entreaties to his dog, and sits outside on East Passyunk Avenue, watching the day fade away with a smile on his lips and a cigar smoking between his fingers.
Rating: 5 out of five stars
King Georges is playing now in select cities (Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles) and is available for streaming via video on demand.