Several times deep into El Bulli's generous running time of nearly two hours, this writer had to remind himself, briefly but firmly, that one is supposed to be engrossed and awed by the culinary expertise on display. Watching Ferran Adrià (a preternaturally stoic man whose unflappable demeanor suggests a thicker Henry Silva) gesture infrequently and deliver statements that sound like occasional self-parody, director Gereon Wetzel's approach to the documentary becomes puzzling with every passing minute. Presented as observational cinema, with barely any background on the restaurant's haute cuisine status or why it's attracting attention worthy of a feature-length doc (though nowadays everything halfway impressive is obsessively recorded), El Bulli quickly loses its novelty.
Certainly the subtitle attached to Bulli is more than an afterthought - "Cooking in Progress" captures both the spirit and underlines the pace of the documentary. We open on the top dogs under Adrià heading to Barcelona to mastermind culinary masterpieces for the new season. Stanley Kubrick seemingly designed the kitchen that awaits them for maximum sterility, and it is that space they will inhabit for months on end, while Wetzel's cameras never intrude, just watch without expounding, capturing for posterity complexities that will be lost on most.
It is undeniably curious to watch the chefs work with minute ingredients rather than full-on dishes - how exactly does one extract the very essence of a sweet potato? As it turns, it's difficult and involves equipment that is able to produce a foamy remnant of whatever the chefs desire. Excuse the lack of parlance here, but if you're truly interested, head to the web in pursuit of knowledge, as Wetzel has no intention of spoon-feeding you even the bare minimum of information. El Bulli lives and dies by what you can glean from the experience, which naturally means that while some are stunned by the artistry they fully comprehend, others will complain, tune out or even become aggravated. This writer falls somewhere in the middle.
Also curious are several choices Wetzel makes that further lessen the impact of the film. While on one hand, it is understandable why we never see patrons taste the painstakingly designed dishes, as Adrià elaborates on his personal beliefs of a meal as a unique journey (for the prices one charged at El Bulli, it was probably more like traversing across a galaxy of flavor). That said though, why allow for a two-hour running time without even a glimpse of the finished product, and no taste tests outside of the chefs and Adrià in particular, whose barely emotional reactions beckon visions of Silva and to a smaller degree, Takeshi Kitano.
While the detail-oriented day-to-day is made clear, the doc's lack of context is a misfire given the running time. There's only so many times one can see men bending over some tiny pieces of potentially edible ingredients before your brain checks out or begs for a simpler, more conventionally attractive dish, crème fraiche for example. Instead you are left with the otherworldly creations that, while impressive-looking, remain at a distance permanently, given the shuttering of the restaurant last year. El Bulli never promises to deliver the debatable thrill of the dining experience but by giving it a short shrift and doubling down on occasionally inexplicably and eventually boring cooking procedures, the film takes a major hit.
The 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen transfer is a functional companion that features much clarity but is not challenged by the film's silvery patina that hardly ever wavers outside of a few visits to a street market. Nothing to complain about, but not much to praise.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is hardly a disappointment, given that the film does not offer much in the way of variety. The kitchen is the space, and the sounds of cooking don't require a particularly robust mix.
Aside from a Theatrical Trailer, an interview with Chef George Mendes is included. Mendes muses on Adrià's legacy but we don't get much more in the way of supplements.
If Richard Kelly had directed El Bulli, and years later provided a Director's Cut that explained all the curious moments that beg to be illuminated in layman terms, this film would deserve more than a Rent It. As it is, Bulli is a record of something different without affording a few words for why one should perk up and care.
The best of the five boroughs is now represented. Brooklyn in the house! I'm a hardworking film writer, blogger, boyfriend and hopeful Corgi owner. Find me on Twitter @markzhur and on Tumblr at Our Elaborate Plans...