Sugar and Stars

Riadh Belaiche in Sugar and Stars. Image courtesy Palace Films

M, 110 minutes, subtitled

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This story of a young chef so dedicated to his craft that he camped on the beach while an apprentice, is a new French title that sets out to show how a boy incumbered by a poor start in life can make good.  And the original title of the film, A La Belle Etoile, or under the stars, segues neatly with this biopic of a famous French chef whose signature pastries and desserts are served in establishments from Paris to Doha.

It was a tough journey for Yazid Ichemrahen, the elder son in a struggling, single-parent family of Moroccan origin living in north-eastern France.  As he grew up, his mother, Samia (Loubna Abida) shared his care part-time with a host family with two sons. Later, there was an institution for homeless boys, but he had been lucky to retain his connection with the loving, nurturing host family who fostered his flair for creative cuisine.

The first cake made was a transporting experience, a thrill concocted from stolen ingredients

The early chapters of his life story are told in traditional flashback structure, with Marwan Amesker as Yazid at eight years of age. The first cake he made was a transporting experience. A thrill concocted from stolen ingredients, at a time when his homelife with his mother was closing in, threatening to cripple his ambition and drive. Unfortunately, self-pitying Samia has a malign influence that Yazid has to muster the strength and determination to leave behind.

If you go to this celebrity chef’s website you will find quotes that explain what creating amazing patisseries and desserts has meant in his life. That he only started to exist through the recognition he received from his work, and that he had to enter a world through a door that no one wanted to open. The plight of talented people from minority social groups laid bare.

In trying to reveal the creativity of the celebrity chef to ordinary mortals, director Sebastien Tulard and his team have used slow-motion extensively. Of course, they want to show how the ambitious and perfectionist young chef worked his way up from the challenges of a simple chocolate cake made in a bread tin, to the flamboyant Black Forest gateau to the Paris-Brest and beyond, but it is hard not to be reminded of the many regular food commercials that use this method. It is something of a cliché.

The boss of the kitchen might be exemplary or they might be a total jerk. All were tyrannical

The screenplay based on Ichemrahen’s autobiography and co-written with Cedric Ido, reveals other aspects of the life of a chef that are more interesting. The instructions kitchen staff get on fine dining prep and plating up is a revealing deconstruction of the dining experience, as Ichemrahen as an apprentice absorbs the lessons from his masters in blue-white-red collars, the sign of the pinnacle in French cuisine. The boss of the kitchen might be exemplary, like mentors Bouchard (Pascal Legitimus) and Cheffe Satomi (Minamoto), or they might be a total jerk. All were tyrannical.

The lead in the timeless star-is-born Rocky movies, Sylvester Stallone, gets a nod in the scenes between Yazid and his friend Manu (stand-up comedian and media personality, Dycosh), as they horse around in the kitchen after-hours riffing on the bits they like best in Rocky II. They are when Adrian tells Rocky she wants him to win. Win, just win, Manu tells Yazid when he qualifies to compete for the world championships.

As the narrative moves towards predictable concluding scenes, we are carried along easily by the natural charisma of its lead actor, Riadh Belaiche, a disarming presence as the adult Yazid. Belaiche is not an influencer with millions of followers on social media for nothing. This, his first lead role in a feature film, can only boost his standing, but the winning charm seems to belie what must have been a real struggle overcoming significant odds.

Sugar and Stars does seem pat and predictable in the final scenes, contributing to the feeling of having consumed a light and insubstantial profiterole and not a hearty galette. Inspired by the brilliance and brio of a young Moroccan-Frenchman who became a world champion in frozen dessert, the filmmakers are keen for us to have a good time. We do, but it detracts from what we imagine was a tough gig as this talented chef climbed the ladder to the upper echelons of French cuisine.

First published in the Canberra Times on 22 July 2023. Also published on Rotten Tomatoes