A Filmic Feast for the Eyes: The Gastronomy of L’Amour

Photo credit for Taste:  Photos provided by DIvergent PR

Writer/director Trần Anh Hùng’s The Taste of Things, a tasty full-course movie meal that serves up spectacular cuisine and rarefied romance, is an acquired taste. For popcorn munching multiplex denizens conditioned by frenetic superhero histrionics and antics, the 135-minute Taste will likely unspool at an excruciatingly slow pace, and requires reading dreaded subtitles, to boot. Likewise, those who expect dollops of politics in their pictures may be sorely disappointed. But Taste probably hits the spot for most cinematic connoisseurs and gourmets of fine dining.

Taste was shot on location at Anjou, east of Brittany, south of Normandy, and the film’s plot, which Trần loosely adapted from Marcel Rouff’s 1924 novel The Life and Passion of Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet, is simple enough. In 1889, at the countryside mansion of the titular chef Dodin Bouffant (in French, the movie’s title is La Passion de Dodin Bouffant), from garden to kitchen to table, elaborate meals are exactingly, exquisitely prepared, cooked and served, usually to Bouffant’s (played by Benoît Magimel, who won the Best Actor César for the 2023 Tahiti-shot and set Pacifiction) friends, a coterie of foodies and gourmands. Dodin, who the Paris Match described as a “renowned historian and incorrigible epicurean,” presides over the preparation with his personal cook, Eugénie.

This being France and Eugénie being portrayed by the great French actress and beauty, Juliette Binoche (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1996’s The English Patient, was Academy Award-nommed for Best Actress for 2000’s Chocolat and depicted Rodin’s wronged mistress in 2013’s Camille Claudel 1915), she is also Dodin’s longtime lover. Although they live under the same roof, they discretely have separate bedrooms. If Dodin wants to make love with her, nighttime he must traverse hallways and staircases in the mansion, and upon arrival at her chamber, he’s only permitted to enter Eugénie’s boudoir if the door is unlocked. Tellingly, the entranceway is never locked, but this detail preserves a semblance of independence for Eugénie, who also demurs whenever Dodin periodically proposes to her. Perhaps by declining to marry him Eugénie craftily keeps kindling Dodin’s desire to continue pursuing her until they finally, fully, belong to one another…

There are subplots, including that of Pauline (newcomer Bonnie Chagneau-Revoire),  nearby peasants’ daughter, who has a flair for cooking and yearns to become Dodin’s apprentice. In press notes, Trần says the young actress’s “formidable virtue is that she chews nicely.” In what may be a bit of European snobbery, another plot point involves a foreign potentate, Le Prince (Mhamed Arezki), who dares to become embroiled in a type of cook-off with the fictitious Dodin, who, according to the Paris Match, “was inspired by authentic great names of the French gastronomy such as Camille Cerf or Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.” (It’s almost as if the Wizard of gastronomy is declaring: “Do you presume to criticize the great Oz, you ungrateful creatures? ...The great Oz has spoken!”)

Friendship, too, is a recurring theme of Taste, but the film revolves around the process of preparing of and then devouring of epicurean feasts and the simmering romance between Eugénie and Dodin. Both plot points are lovingly lensed by cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg. Some may find that the camera’s lingering over the cooking and then eating of sumptuous repasts for 20, 30 minutes is excessive, dull and repetitive. But I’d remind attention-span challenged ticket buyers that 1972’s action-packed The Godfather opened with a wedding sequence “you can’t refuse” that’s also exceedingly lengthy.

As for the love affair, which but of course mirrors the passion for the kitchen, as the table does for the bed, it is beautifully shot and acted. The nearly 60-year-old Binoche retains her captivating beauty and allure (unless that’s a stunt derriere sensuously unveiled onscreen). Eugénie’s occasional, passing spells are portentous and Taste’s romance becomes a rumination on the passing of time, aging – which the characters poetically evoke with seasonal references. Trần may be cautioning that he/she who hesitates is lost, we shouldn’t wait until it’s too late to seize the time…

If there are any politics in Taste, they are rather bourgeois. At a reception after a screening at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, I commented to the Da Nang-born Trần that Dodin’s quartet of gourmets are never seen paying for their lavish meals. Trần explained to me that this was because these four Musketeers were friends and guests of the independently wealthy Dodin, a landowner whose fortune freed him to devote his life to cooking and eating as an art form. I asked if Taste was going to be released in Vietnam and how his socialist homeland would react to this movie, and the auteur was uncertain.

Taste may not be politically engagé in the sense that Godard and Costa-Gavras classics are, but the movie definitely has a point of view. It’s similar to the perspective found in the Impressionist canvases painted at the time Taste is set. One could almost imagine pointillist Georges Seurat daubing a scene at Dodin’s rural enclave and calling it “Sunday in the Kitchen with Eugénie.” The film’s wistful worldview might be summed up as “joie de vivre” – although such reveries aren’t lasting…  

According to press notes, the three Michelin-star chef Pierre Gagnaire served as a consultant on the film, bestowing culinary authenticity. After the “Fall of Saigon” (or rise of Ho Chi Minh City – depends on your POV) 12-year-old Trần moved from Vietnam to France. Trần previously directed 1993’s The Scent of Green Papaya, which was Vietnam’s official selection for the Academy Awards, nominated in the Oscar category previously called Best Foreign Film, and won two Cannes Film Festival awards, plus a César for Best First Work. 

After a seven-year hiatus from the silver screen, last year Trần made a triumphant comeback with Taste, France’s selection for what’s now the Academy’s Best International Feature Film. Although it wasn’t Oscar-nommed, Trần won Cannes’ Best Director award and Taste was nominated for Cannes’ prestigious Palme d’Or, plus for three Césars. The César, but of course, is the French Oscar equivalent; the always eminently watchable Juliette Binoche has been nommed 11 times for Césars, and won for 1994’s Three Colors: Blue. Audiences can savor this still-gorgeous, gifted artiste again in her latest filmic foray. 

The Taste of Things may not be to every theatergoer’s taste, but I thoroughly enjoyed Trần’s tasty movie morsel. Here’s the secret recipe for enjoying Taste: See it with somebody you love, and as this film is absolutely guaranteed to wet your appetite, indulge at a splendid table at a favorite restaurant or kitchen afterwards. Then, after enjoying that luscious luau, the true gourmet – and glutton – who savors cinema à la mode, should finish the evening with a double feature by viewing Frederick Wiseman’s nonfiction Menus-Plaisir – Les Troisgros, another culinary paean to French gastronomy that’s only twice as long as Taste. Bon appétit! 

The limited theatrical release of The Taste of Things, which is in French with English subtitles, opens February 9; Taste goes wide, appropriately, on Valentine’s Day, a time for chocolate and l’amour.  

Photo credit for Taste: Photos provided by DIvergent PR