Monday, 8 October 2012

REVIEW: El Bulli: Cooking In Progress (2010)

El Bulli: Cooking In Progress is a documentary, directed by Gereon Wetzel, about the now-closed Spanish restaurant elBulli and its head chef Ferran Adrià. The restaurant dealt in avant-garde cuisine and the film details the process behind the food, from its conception through to its presentation.

The documentary reveals a year in the life of the restaurant and the key people involved, starting with the closing of the restaurant at the end of the summer season. Adrià and a team of his senior chefs, including Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruch, spend the next few months testing out new “concepts”, cooking them a number of different ways and recording the results. Later, as June and the re-opening approach, a swarm of new recruits are brought in to assist with these large operations. We then see the restaurant in action, dealing effectively and quickly with the many different orders, while Adrià sits and meticulously tests the quality of each dish.

El Bulli: Cooking In Progress is a type of process documentary, not unlike Sophie Fiennes’ 2010 portrait of Anselm Kiefer and his work, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow. In both films, the camera, in a detached yet observational handheld style, focuses primarily on the work, or the craft of making art. With crisp, clean digital imagery, these films document the process of creating art. However, while Fiennes’ film allowed at least one tell-all interview with its subject, Wetzel refuses to do anything other than document. Or so he would like us to believe. There are a series of moments that feel staged, including a rather too-clean match-on-action (when a cut between two different shots is bridged by a movement in order to give the impression of continuity), a technique of ‘invisible’ editing primarily used to Hollywood. Some exchanges between the chefs seem scripted, particularly a sequence late in the film in which Adrià talks to the assembled assistants and explains what elBulli is all about. It is a revealing moment but not a particularly believable one.

El Bulli: Cooking In Progress, though cold and detached, is clearly deeply passionate about the elBulli restaurant and haute cuisine in general. The film is deeply serious in its presentation of the process of cooking at elBulli. Without any doubt, it considers cooking an art and food an art form, just as much as painting, sculpting or cinema. When the food is ready to be served, it resembles more a piece of modern art, with a series of photographs of the meals shown over the end credits giving the impression of an exhibition. The film may well have a case to make and it may make you think about food and the nature of art and maybe even film, but not for very long. Similarly, the conclusions one might come to will be of little interest. The film’s treatment is rather facile, but the major problem with El Bulli: Cooking In Progress is that it smacks too much of snobbery.

Ferran Adrià is not so interested in whether his food tastes nice and he certainly is not concerned about giving his customers a meal - the portions are incredibly miniscule no matter how many courses there might be. Like modern art, the benefits are more cerebral. In his pep talk, Adrià says that the main thing is that the food give an emotional or intellectual response, that it shock and surprise. Unlike art, however, food serves a basic need, one that is not open to the vicissitudes of mental processes. As a result, at the risk of sounding like a philistine, it is difficult to agree with Ferran Adrià or with El Bulli: Cooking In Progress. Not that the film tries to convince. Behind the supposedly undoctored reality, which is never achievable whatever the aesthetics, of the film’s continuous documentation, there is a sense of smugness. It is preaching to the converted, safe in the knowledge that anyone who is unimpressed will either have given up long ago or will keep quiet. Instead of being intriguing or even fascinating as it could well have been, particularly as a Godardian exercise in boundary-breaking, the film is hopelessly didactic, overlong and po-faced.

As a side note, the film is also often barely comprehensible, particularly early in the film, when they are trying to put new “concepts” into practise. The film cuts quickly through a series of close-ups of different foods, handheld shots of the chefs cooking them, tasting them and adjusting them, but without any sense of time passing. These sequences are nearly impossible to follow in narrative terms, with the inedible food seen in the “Here’s one we made earlier” type moments nearly indistinguishable from the foods that are either finished or unfinished. Similarly, Adrià has an incredibly stony face, which often makes it difficult to gauge whether any of these trials have been successful or not. The film is also surprisingly unfocussed, giving a lot of attention to the repercussions of a faulty hard drive as if data management is of the utmost importance in a busy restaurant.

El Bulli: Cooking In Progress preaches to the converted and prefers not to look too critically at the idea of haute cuisine. It is pretentious and somewhat unapproachable as well as totally unconvincing. There is an air of snobbery throughout, which is hard to see past. Ultimately, the film has very little worth or appeal. 

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