The two films at the recent RiverRun Film Festival that were to my mind indisputable winners were The Nightingale and The Chef, with The German Doctor a respectable runner-up. In this day of instant On Demand, pay-per-view and streaming available from many sources, you may soon have a chance to see any or all of these. I recommend all three.
The German Doctor, an Argentine film, is based on reality and as soon as you learn the German doctor of the title is living in Patagonia in 1960 you begin to suspect it must be you-know-who.
He befriends a family whose children are enrolled in a German-speaking school with an unsettling curriculum and takes a medical interest in the daughter who is small for her age and in the mother who is pregnant with twins.
There is a particularly creepy leitmotif involving dolls that the father designs and another concerning the medical care the doctor begins providing for the children. There are few surprises in the plot, but the atmosphere is thick with foreboding and the lead performer, Alex Brendenmuhl, is deeply disquieting.
The Chef is a French film doing what the French do better than anyone – cooking up a social comedy teetering on the brink of farce. Ever since the New Wave the French have tried to emulate American genres – the hardboiled detective story, the thriller, and one they gave a name, film noir. But they never seem really at home in them. Whereas the comic soufflés they concoct are superb and The Chef is delicious.
Jean Reno is a three star chef who has been repeating himself for years. His famous restaurant is owned by a company with many other venues and the patriarch is semi-retired. His son is all business and impatient to modernize, but by contract he can’t replace the chef unless he loses a star. Since the Michelin judges are rumored to favor trendy molecular gastronomy, the jig may be up.
Michael Youn is a chef wannabe who drives his pregnant girlfriend mad by losing one job after another because he is an impossible perfectionist incapable of letting a less than stellar plate escape any kitchen that employs him.
Obviously the old lion and young tyro need each other. Much hilarity ensues including satiric thrusts at culinary fads, the valuing of novelty over tradition, TV cooking shows, and even industrial espionage when the two chefs don Japanese disguises to spy on a rival.
Finally we come to The Nightingale, a French-Chinese co-production. It features a soulful, subtle performance by Li Bao Tian as a widower grandfather who sacrificed his own happiness living apart from his family in order to earn enough to allow his son to win an education.
Now the son is a jet-setting architect married to an equally high flying executive. They are lavishly raising a princess daughter but are rarely in the same time zone together.
Grandfather and son are estranged because of what the son regards as an unforgivable lapse years before when grandpa was allowed to babysit the precious girl. But scheduling conflicts now force the mother to park the girl with grandpa without telling her husband.
Wise grandfather decides to take spoiled granddaughter on a trip to the ancestral village where his wife is buried. Along the way everything goes wrong until everything is finally put right, minds are changed, tears are shed and antagonisms overcome.
The bird of the title plays an important role that is beautifully revealed and developed as the competing claims of ambition and duty, tradition and modernity are reconciled.
The Nightingale could be accused of sentimentality, but so could “The Tempest” or “Twelfth Night.” Like them, it begins as a seemingly realistic, even depressing story of a family’s sorrows, but at some point it slips imperceptibly across a border into the land of romance and fairy tale. It is a beautifully wrought film, full of heart.