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[whitespace] 'Mostly Martha'
Too Many Chefs: From left, Martina Gedeck, Maxime Foerste, Katja Studt and Sergio Castellitto crowd the kitchen in 'Mostly Martha.'

Sweet Soufflé

Martina Gedeck cooks up a graceful comedy as 'Mostly Martha'

By Richard von Busack

REMEMBER THE LINE in Apocalypse Now about the guy who was wrapped too tight for Vietnam, probably wrapped too tight for New Orleans? The heroine in Mostly Martha is wound too tight to be a chef in a gourmet restaurant in Germany. Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck) is in psychotherapy to remove the rebar from her backbone, but it's not working. When on the couch, she'll only talk about her métier. A baffled therapist listens as she discusses the steps of her complicated recipes. As could be said of many a local electrical engineer, she has emotional problems with anything that doesn't follow a blueprint.

When her niece is suddenly orphaned, Martha takes the girl in without much of an idea of what to do with her. Young Lina (Maxime Foerste) is a not a Hollywood orphan; she's stubborn and peevish sometimes, and the relationship starts on the bad foot and stays there. Martha's boss, Frida (Swiss actress Sibylle Canonica)--stressed to the limit by Martha's temperament--hires an assistant, Mario (Sergio Castellitto), an Italian. Mario's emotional, sensual approach to cooking is the opposite of Martha's haut-French training. (Martha knows the story about the royal chef who killed himself because one of his sauces failed, and no, she doesn't think it's humorous.) Mario listens to stage-Italian lush music in the kitchen: "Volare" and Louis Prima. Director Sandra Nettelbeck clearly contrasts Mediterranean warmth and German frigidity, and she doesn't reverse the angles--Mario never does anything sloppy, and he's never too presumptuous; Martha never loosens up in the kitchen, as a good chef must from time to time.

You also see here an undeveloped love triangle. There's a handsome architect, Sam (Ulrich Thomsen), who lives downstairs from Martha. He has a suave line to charm the little Lina. She says she has to go to school. "Aren't you too old for that?" he replies. Sam gets lost in the second act, when he could have provided some of that "Which man will she pick?" suspense.

It's a minor movie, and yet Gedeck is one of those performers about whom, after 10 minutes or so, it strikes you, "This woman was a dancer, once." It's hard to take your eyes off her. Gedeck is well known in Germany, but none of her films has been released here. She's imposing, but like Isabelle Huppert, she doesn't seem brittle or imperious. Thawing her out would seem worth the effort. It was the ever so slight yearning quality in Huppert--that attentiveness in her eyes in that scene where she submitted her five-page letter of masochistic demands--that gave The Piano Teacher instances of poignancy throughout long stretches of ridiculousness.

As the plot outline of Mostly Martha suggests, after 45 minutes in, you can see what's going to happen. Despite this, the film moves gracefully, just like its heroine. It's how this film gets to its destination that charms. That and the unabashed food porn of the Lido restaurant, there to entice viewers who loved Babette's Feast and The Big Night.

'Mostly Martha' (PG; 107 min.), directed by written by Sandra Nettelbeck, photographed by Michael Bertl and starring Martina Gedeck and Sergio Castellitto, opens Friday at the Camera One in San Jose and the Century 16 in Mtn. View.

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From the August 22-28, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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