Is it possible to taste a film? Colorful images and descriptions of aromas and flavors can help create an environment akin to a dining experience, but to be so immersed in the cooking, seasoning, and actual eating process is something else. Trần Anh Hùng’s latest film, The Taste of Things, is a delicate and scrumptious portrait of two people who devote their lives to the art of making good food, and the naturally close relationship that develops between them as a result.
In 1880s France, Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) works closely with master chef Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel) to craft extraordinary meals on a regular basis. Courses are served to friends and visitors with the utmost care and a flair for the wondrous, and there is a fine art to everything that the two of them do. Eugénie and Dodin begin mentoring a talented young girl with an interest in culinary arts, Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), as they contemplate whether their decades-long partnership should evolve into something more than just a professional dynamic.
There is little concern for deliberate exposition in this film, which begins simply with food being prepared and never really stops. Who and where these people are is almost incidental, since the kitchen is their true home. How they afford their ingredients and what they might have done to attain these positions of prestige is far less important than the fact that they do have this status, and anyone who has heard of them would be lucky to eat at their table even once in their lives. Audiences will be salivating just as much to get a taste of just one of the dozens of exquisite meals they prepare onscreen.
The character of Dodin comes from Marcel Rouff’s 1924 novel The Passionate Epicure, and this film is known by several names. Released in France as La passion de Dodin Bouffant and at Cannes as The Pot-au-Feu, this film does indeed combine all those elements. Dodin cares extraordinarily about the work he does, and the Pot-au-Feu, a famed French dish with boiled meat, is his specialty. But the biggest emphasis is on the taste and the enduring feeling it provides to diners. Dodin’s meals are lavish but also very deliberate and specific, meant not to overwhelm the taste buds but to satisfy them to exactly the right degree.
While some have expressed surprise and displeasure that The Taste of Things was selected as France’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature over the acclaimed courtroom drama Anatomy of a Fall, there’s plenty of merit to be found in this exquisitely-prepared film, which is admittedly less weighty than the Sandra Hüller starrer. French-Vietnamese filmmaker Hung, whose first feature, The Scent of Green Papaya, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film on behalf of Vietnam in 1993, brings a devoted and potent approach to this craft, staging his actors and the food they make in a manner that helps the action to transcend the screen and permeate whatever space the film is being shown.
The other crucial combination of ingredients that makes this film a treat is its stars. As Binoche noted at a Q & A following a screening of the film, she and Magimel were married for five years and have a child together. They’ve previously acted opposite one another, and the intimacy and mutual respect is evident in the way that they share the screen. This is a film that cares about its characters as much as it cares about the elegance of its dishes, which makes for a pleasant and satisfying viewing experience. Binoche and Magimel believably communicate their affection for the work they do and for each other, which should leave a distinctly warm taste in audiences’ mouths.
The Taste of Things begins its Oscar-qualifying run in LA on December 15th before debuting in limited theatrical release on February 9th.