Agony, ecstasy in Candyland
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, November 26, 2010
It's painful to see a grown man cry, so it should be downright unbearable to witness an accomplished pastry chef unabashedly weep over the sudden devastation of a massive sugar sculpture. And yet, the documentary "Kings of Pastry," which follows a cutthroat baking competition in Lyon, France, is as satisfying as, er, pain au chocolat.
As it turns out, every four years a slate of 70 sweets specialists is whittled down to a mere 16 who compete in the three-day baking marathon Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (the best craftsmen in France), known economically as MOF. The prize? A handshake from French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the coveted tricolor collar, in a chic blue, white and red, of course.
Directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker focus on three of the finalists leading up to and during the challenge. There's the Chicago-based founder of the French Pastry School, Jacquy Pfeiffer, who sprinkles his sentences with quirky sound effects; the amiable Philippe Rigollot, who establishes himself as the master of adorably whimsical edible creations; and baby-faced Regis Lazard, whose perpetual look of confused despair seems to indicate post-traumatic stress from his loss at the previous MOF due to one misstep and - mon dieu! - a shattered sugar sculpture.
These characters, lovable all, are joined by judge and mentor Sebastien Canonne, who fulfills our need for a French stereotype, unaware of any compliment more lavish than "pas mal" (translation: not bad).
Each finalist is responsible for a smorgasbord of desserts, crafted over the three days of competition. More terrifying still, each contestant must transport his masterpieces from the kitchen to a buffet table, at which point things can get surprisingly messy.
The run-up to the big event is filled with time trials and test runs of domed wedding cakes, candy ribbons, ornate cream puffs and crystallized eggs made from syrup, not to mention shock absorbers for the undercarriage of the sugar sculpture platform to cut down on the risk of spontaneous destruction. But once the competition begins, things start to feel less like "Top Chef" than the Tour de France. The finalists are exhausted and men begin to fall apart. So do baked goods.
"It's too hard," one pastry chef cries out.
Butter and sugar make for delicious drama. Hegedus and Pennebaker, who have a history of creating documentaries together, do a tremendous job of balancing the tension of a quest with the stories of charming characters worth cheering for. And while the production quality seems more akin to a cable documentary than something filmed for the big screen, that's not so noticeable once things turn into Candyland.
In fact, watching the story unfold triggers that same smile-inducing reaction to consuming a delectable confection, so much so that even Canonne might ditch his aversion to high praise and admit it: C'est bon.
Many sugar sculptures were harmed in the making of this film. Otherwise, it contains nothing objectionable.