Charlotte Gray: Soupe au Pistou Recipe

Year Released: 2001
Directed by: Gillian Armstrong
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon
(PG-13, 121 min.)

"Hope is always green." Dante

I think it is time to give this 2001 World War II film a second look even though the critics and general public were not so impressed with it when it came out. Cate Blanchett is marvelous in the title role as a Scottish girl working with the French Resistance in Vichy France, giving us a woman’s perspective on that hellish time and place.

Film critic Claudia Puig notes that strength:

This fully drawn heroine reveals many aspects of her complex personality. She is brave, brainy, sexy, principled and compassionate. It sounds silly even to list these traits, but women on film are rarely allowed to be all those things in one movie.

Certainly there are a few more gritty tales featuring a strong female from that period, such as Rachel Stein, a raven-haired survivor who uses her wits and sexuality to make it in the Dutch Resistance in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. Rachel’s main motivation is saving her own skin, though, while Charlotte Gray leaves the safety of Scotland to venture first toward bombed out London to nurse the wounded and then to parachute into occupied France to work with the besieged Resistance there. Well, yes, there is the little matter of using that cover to find the downed RAF pilot she loves, who is supposedly in hiding with the Resistance.

Charlotte certainly is brave. When her initial courier assignment goes down in flames with the quick capture and death of her contact, she switches to a more daring assignment, joining her French comrades in perilous acts of sabotage. The night bombing of a train is almost lethal to her, so close is she to the fiery debris launched from the German armaments that explode before her. And at the same time, she nurtures two Jewish boys in hiding at a rambling countryside estate, assuming the role of housekeeper to the eccentric owner.

Yet her courage is no match for Mathilde from the classic 1969 French Resistance film Army of Shadows. Played by the great actress Simone Signore, Mathilde has more brains, inventive boldness, and spirit than any of her male counterparts, yet her steely resolve is joined by a desperate and stoic ruthlessness as well.

In these other films, both Rachel and Mathilde have to compromise their honor, and they do so in the continental tradition without batting an eye. Despite the fact most of Charlotte Gray takes place in France, its perspective is mostly English – stiff upper lip, Queensbury rules, and all that – a luxury unique to a country that was bombed into rubble but never into submission, one spared a military occupation and all its vile repercussions.

That essentially British perspective, the injection of romance, and the fact that the whole film is in English probably is designed to give it a main street appeal. However, the fact that Charlotte is fluent in French is so important in her recruitment to the cause that I would have enjoyed it more in French with subtitles. Though it was once the standard, having foreign characters speak English now seems awkward and inauthentic.

What it lacks in gritty realism, Charlotte Gray makes up for in a lush and authentic Masterpiece Theatre type of setting. Never has a war torn countryside looked so beautiful. Green rolling hills and moss-covered stonewalls remain serene even as the German troops invade. The crumbling country mansion where Charlotte and the Jewish boys hide out is as unflappable in its tattered dignity as its owner, Levade (Michael Gambon), the estranged father of a Resistance member. The classic stage actor brings to his role the same wisdom and stoic courage we remember from his stint as Professor Dumbledore in the many Harry Potter films.

Equally effective is the glimpse of Vichy France, the so-called free zone where the government of France collaborated with the Axis powers from July 1940 until August 1944. A schoolmaster who uses his position as an official collaborator is particularly loathsome. It is difficult to decide which is more repugnant, his pious speech on the virtues of collaboration with the Nazis, or his use of his position to curry the sexual favors of local women. 

As a counterpoint to our age of 24-hours-a-day televised crises, these World War II epic films remind us of the much worse times mankind has lived and suffered through. Catherine Gray exposes us to some of those tragedies, but it pulls some of its punches and fails to leave us with the haunting quality of some other films depicting that era.

Here are links to some of the best: 

Before the Fall

Black Book

Army of Shadows


Gloomy Sunday

Letters from Iwo Jima

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Counterfeiters

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Here is a perfect French Provincial Soup for Charlotte to cook up in the crumbing country estate where she hides out with two young Jewish boys evading deportation. They look at her as an “angel from the skies,” since they have witnessed her arrival in France via parachute.

With her creamy skin and dark hair, she reminds me of Snow White, and that makes me recall that scene in the Disney film where she cooks up a delicious soup for all 7 of the dwarves.

This is a great way to use some of your early summer harvest of vegetables from your garden or the local supermarket. Soup as Pistou has been compared to an Italian minestrone. French or Italian. It works for me.

Bon appétit !

Soupe au Pistou

A Provençal vegetable and bean soup, soupe au pistou is a lot like an Italian minestrone. But the French version gets all gussied up with a big a dollop of pistou, a basil and garlic paste similar to Ligurian pesto. This healthful soup is served in the summertime using only the best of the season's produce.

Makes 4 to 6 servings


  • Olive oil -- 3 tablespoons

  • Onion, finely chopped -- 1

  • Tomatoes, peeled and chopped -- 2 cups

  • Stock or water -- 2 quarts

  • White beans, drained and rinsed -- 1 (15-ounce) can

  • Red beans, drained and rinsed -- 1 (15-ounce) can

  • Potatoes, peeled and diced -- 4

  • Small zucchini, diced -- 3

  • Green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces -- 1/2 pound

  • Salt and pepper -- to taste


  • Basil, stems removed -- 1 bunch

  • Garlic, chopped -- 5 or 6 cloves

  • Kosher salt -- a pinch

  • Grated Parmesan cheese -- 1/4 cup

  • Olive oil -- 1/4 cup

  • Freshly ground black pepper -- to taste


  1. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium flame. Add the onion and saute until translucent, 3 or 4 minutes. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and simmer for 3 or 4 minutes more.

  2. Add the stock or water, beans and potatoes to the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes.

  3. Stir in the zucchini, green beans, salt and pepper and simmer for another 15 minutes, or until all the vegetables are tender but not overcooked.

  4. While the soup is simmering, put the basil, garlic and a pinch of salt into a mortar or food processor. Mash with a pestle or pulse in the food processor until it forms a smooth paste while still retaining a little texture. Stir in the cheese, olive oil and black pepper until smooth.

  5. Place a good spoonful of pistou into the bottom of individual soup bowls. Adjust the seasoning of the soup and ladle into the bowls. Serve with crusty bread. You can also serve the pistou separately and let each diner stir it to the soup as he or she likes.

Recipe Source: