Make sure you have a full stomach before going to watch “Kings of Pastry,” playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center on Saturday, Jan. 22, under sponsorship of the M.V. Film Society. Note the change of location from the Katharine Cornell Theatre, for this week only.
There are no real losers in this delectable documentary about the competition to win designation as Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (one of the Best French Craftsmen, or MOF) in the category of pastry- and candy-making.
The legendary documentary maker D.A. Pennebaker, responsible for popularizing cinema vérité in the U.S., and his co-directing wife, Chris Hegebus, gained unprecedented access to this 2007 competition in Lyons, France, which occurs every four years. Filmgoers may recognize the couple from their Oscar-nominated film about the 1992 Clinton campaign, “The War Room,” along with other award-winners such as the Bob Dylan tour film “Don’t Look Back.”
Using handheld cameras and eschewing voice-overs or interviews in traditional cinema vérité style, the filmmakers focus on the preparations of three aspirants to France’s highest honor in this cooking specialty. They spend the most time with the co-founder of Chicago’s French Pastry School, Jacqui Pfeiffer, an affable Frenchman, and his American girlfriend Rachel.
M. Pfeiffer is one of 16 finalists chosen out of 70 who will compete without the hyped-up nonsense of TV cooking contests or shows. This kind of cooking is serious business.
Working on orange hazelnut cream puffs, M. Pfeiffer explains that his creation must be beautiful without too much “frou-frou.” Each of the contestants will have three days to complete a menu of pastries and sweets in many different categories, ranging from chocolate to sugar sculptures.
Those selected for the honor are determined by a panel of MOF’s who look, smell, and sample. Their work must taste superb, look stunning, and, in the case of the more fragile entries, not fall apart.
M. Pfeiffer says, “It’s like the Olympics: you have to be good that day. If you break anything, it’s over.”
The viewer watches as an elaborate spun-sugar creation shatters.
Because the cinema vérité format relies on the inherent interest in what is filmed, without any cinematic “frou-frous,” its products take time to gather momentum — much like its recent spawn, mumblecore cinema. In “Kings of Pastry,” both the culinary creations and the chefs themselves are interesting enough to hold the viewer’s attention.
The run-up to the final three days generates a natural tension, as the viewer gets to know more of the contestants. Philippe Rigollot joins M. Pfeiffer, along with Regis Lazard, in dominating the camera’s eye.
“If you give someone the title before they’re ready, they won’t live up to it,” cautions a judge. Wearing the tricolor collar that distinguishes an MOF will land an impostor in jail. That’s how seriously the French regard their cooking credentials.
Both sweat and tears pour out in the final days of the competition, and President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks at the awards ceremony.
“Kings of Pastry” ends with surprising turns of events, offering a satisfying and natural resolution of this photogenic culinary battle.
Afterwards, it’s time to head to the nearest pastry-providing coffee shop.
“Kings of Pastry,” Saturday, Jan. 22, 7:30 pm, M.V. Hebrew Center, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for MVFS members). Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.
Brooks Robards, a frequent contributor to The Times, divides her time between Oak Bluffs and Northampton.