Kings of Pastry
Directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus
Sweets are serious business in Kings of Pastry, a kitchen-crisis documentary by D.A. Pennebaker (Dont Look Back) and his frequent collaborator (and wife), Chris Hegedus. The co-directors go behind the scenes at the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition, a once-every-four-years event during which 16 French pastry chefs vie for the extremely prestigious best-in-France distinction. The film mainly follows Jacquy Pfeiffer, who runs a pastry school in Chicago, as he returns to his native France to gear up for the MOF. Preparation is key because the judges at the three-day event don't let the patissiers rest for a moment. During Day 2, Jacquy whips up all manner of elaborate confections but only manages to eat two quick granola bars.
As the cheftestants bond with each other and suffer individual heartbreaks, Kings of Pastry becomes reasonably involving, but its suspense element always feels a bit contrived. Pennebaker and Hegedus lean very heavily on one aspect of the competition to manufacture white-knuckle tension: the exceedingly fragile sugar sculptures. Most of these are ornate glasslike configurations enwrapped by gaudy sugar filaments and studded with metallic-looking candy-ribbon bows. The directors' statement cites Brancusi; Jeff Koons's balloon sculptures are perhaps a more useful reference point here. (Despite the filmmakers' pastry-as-high-art marveling, these chefs appear to have the hands of craftsmen, not artists, to interpolate what the lumbering Italian priest told George Clooney in The American.)
Each pastry chef is required to build one of these sculptures and carry it a short distance. Because they are so heavy and have so many flamboyantly spiraling parts, the structures have a tendency to break when they're finally set down again on a hard surface. Certainly the sugar's snap and shatter is a spectacular way of visualizing unlucky competitors' dashed hopes, but Pennebaker and Hegedus rely on it at the expense of the various other MOF challenges. Kings of Pastry might have more in common with the empty calories of cable's cake-show boomlet than Pennebaker's trailblazing Direct Cinema, but as a portrait of men-in-training it's still appealingly generous.
Opens September 15 at Film Forum