Do NOT see Mostly Martha on an empty stomach. A goodly portion of the movie takes place in the kitchen of a gourmet restaurant where director Sandra Nettelbeck lets the camera linger over squab and truffles and foie gras. It’s not just the food, but also the cooking processes which are explored: shucking oysters, boiling lobsters (after learning it is more humane to kill the lobster first with a knife to the neck), rolling the dough and cutting out ravioli, dicing, chopping, slicing, peeling.
At the center of activity is the master chef, Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck), a beautiful young woman who lives for her work, to the exclusion of just about everything else. The owner of the restaurant has insisted she go into therapy, but she really doesn’t have a clue why she’s there–she recites menus and recipes to the shrink. She’s also a control freak, reigning over the restaurant kitchen like Catherine the Great running the Russian empire.
But the rules of entropy conspire to break down established structures. Martha’s sister is killed in an automobile accident and Martha takes in her eight year old niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste). The girl’s father, an Italian, hasn’t been around for a long time and they write to try to reestablish contact and let him know of his daughter’s situation. In the meantime, Lina is coping with the loss of her Mom and the demanding hours of Martha’s job make it difficult for them to find a workable modus operandi. It’s a difficult time for both.
Back at the restaurant, the owner has hired a second chef, Mario (Sergio Castellitto), and this, too, shakes up Martha’s fragile cocoon of security. The comparison is offered in stark contrasts of black-and-white: Martha is rigid, controlling, joyless, while Mario, also an expert chef, is nurturing, giving, and adds music and singing to the kitchen environment. If the film hadn’t been made by a German, suspicions of ethnic stereotyping would be fomenting.
Nettelbeck develops her story slowly, using her uniformly expert cast to show the gradual shiftings of perceptions and feelings, focused, of course, on Martha, as well as her relationship with Lina. Nettelbeck shares with her principal character a quality of neatness and order, building her product with carefully constructed elements, each logically leading to the next. The camera carefully frames each scene; there is a deliberateness about the whole procedure.
The danger of making a film about a rigid, repressed hero is that the film itself will be dragged down by the character’s neurosis. Martha is not a woman without charm, but she doesn’t choose to exercise that attribute in her relationships or at the restaurant. It’s no wonder the customers seem to be so crabby. In the elegantly spare decor of this temple of haute cuisine, the emphasis is on chemical and visual perfection, but the element of joy has been forgotten. Partaking of even the finest food and drink, if joyless, is merely ingestion.
In Babette’s Feast, a grand meal itself becomes the focus for joy in a repressed community. And another banquet, prepared by another perfectionist chef,is cause for celebration in Big Night. Mostly Martha stays so closely focused on Martha’s dysfunction that, for all the time spent with food, and for all the carefully drawn characterizations, the film bogs down under the burden of its hero’s miseries. The joy arrives only over the end titles and by then the audience will have headed for the nearest bistro.