The year is 1671 and the Sun King Louis XIV (Julian Sands) rules at Versailles. He announces his intention to spend three days at the country chateau of Prince de Conde (Julian Glover). This gout-ridden warrior, who hopes to lead the French army shortly in a war against Holland, instructs his steward François Vatel (Gérard Depardieu) to handle all the details regarding food, lodging, and festivities. The prince is deep in debt and assumes that if all goes well, he and the people in the region will be handsomely rewarded.

Rolland Joffé directs this costume drama with a music score by Ennio Morricone. The screenplay by Tom Stoppard is an English adaptation of Jeanne Labrune's French language screenplay. For those who have eyes to see, the situation has a contemporary flair to it: A small number of incredibly rich people, addicted to overconsumption, cavalierly are entertained while the large masses around them live in poverty, suffer needlessly, and even lay down their lives in order that the show may continue.

Vatel, knowing that the destiny of many people lies in his hands, faces one crisis after another in the preparation of sumptuous banquets and dazzling theatrical events. With inventive aplomb, he saves a young boy from the greedy clutches of the king's brother and manages to create lanterns out of hollowed out melons after all the glass lamps arrive broken in pieces.

Vatel is especially tender and thoughtful in regard to Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman), the latest conquest of the lusty king who is bored with his wife. Despite all his skills, the ingenious steward earns the ire of the Marquis de Lauzun (Tim Roth), the king's smarmy lieutenant. The melancholy finale also has a very contemporary ring: Those who are unwilling to be the pawns and the playthings of the rich and the powerful find themselves forced to make chilling decisions.