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A love story with a side of the macabre

Josef Ostendorf plays a gifted but reclusive chef who falls in love with his already married waitress, the title character of "Eden."

The darkly whimsical new German film "Eden" recalls the work of Percy Adlon, whose "Sugarbaby" and "Bagdad Cafe" livened up art houses in the mid-'80s. There's a portly, misunderstood central figure -- here a gifted recluse of a chef -- an obsession with the erotic side of food, and a macabre sense of mischief. A love story of sorts, it's not a feel-good movie so much as feel-orgasmic-and-then-mildly-crestfallen movie. Like sex, like a good meal, like life.

In plummy voice-over, we learn that Gregor (Josef Ostendorf) admired his mother's pregnant belly so much as a boy that he has replicated it in himself, filling it with culinary masterpieces he also serves to his clientele in his small home restaurant. He and a dowdy waitress named Eden (Charlotte Roche) meet when he fishes her young daughter, Leonie (Leonie Stepp), out of a park fountain, and despite the fact that the mother is happily married (more or less), the smitten Gregor begins a campaign of romantic conquest by food.

He expresses his love for Eden in every new sauce and reduction, and his cuisine reaches such heights that his customers start spontaneously applauding their entrees. He (and we) sense the bargain's inherently unfair, though. How can you love the meal without loving its maker? Or is that the lopsided deal all art offers?

Eden glows with a new and well-fed confidence and carnality -- once a mouseburger, she's now a meat-eater -- but she lavishes the change on her handsome twit of a husband, Xaver (Devid Striesow). He's a failed attorney now teaching ballroom dancing to retirees, and is driven to near madness by the thought that someone else is stuffing his wife.

She's one of life's gracious takers, and she makes both men feel loved and needed until she can no longer maintain the balance -- at which point, the movie named after her stumbles, too. The plotting goes awry, the delicate lattice of desire and satiation gets trampled by resentment and revenge. The movie's like a dinner party that ends badly, a disappointment for both host and guests.

Writer-director Michael Hofmann (he made 2002's "Sophiiiie!," a more successfully provocative dark comedy) is more interested in the before than the after: the highs that love and food give us and where they part company. The most effective moments in "Eden" are the emotions that play across Gregor's stiff teddy-bear face as he watches Eden and Leonie chow down. Gratitude's there as well as wonder and the proper amount of pride. As Bob Dylan once noted, you gotta serve somebody. Hofmann adds the codicil that someone always has to pay the check.

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