The Taste of Things Is Ravishing, Delectable, and Maybe Even a Little Radical
The Taste of Things begins with a nearly 40-minute sequence of one elaborate meal being prepared and consumed. We watch the root vegetables being pulled out of the earth, the fish gutted, the butter clarified, the meat seared, the steaming vats of sauces and stocks lifted and stirred and drained. The constant activity in the downstairs kitchen, all overseen by master cook Eugénie (Juliette Binoche), feeds the smoky, cozy hubbub of conversation upstairs among the master of the house, Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel), and a small coterie of friends upstairs. What’s most remarkable about this meal, however, is how unremarkable it is within the flow of the film. It’s not a climactic scene or a narrative-advancing plot point. It is, quite simply, an exquisite meal with which to kick off this exquisite picture.
The French Vietnamese director, Tran Anh Hung, is contemporary cinema’s great poet of languor. Ever since his feature debut, The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), he has made films about those in-between moments that other directors would breeze past or studiously avoid — even though such moments are what really make up our lives. The Scent of Green Papaya was a whisper of a story fixated on mundane details, the kind of movie where someone trying on a pair of shoes occupied as much emotional space as a character dying; Hung found cinematic majesty in the murmur of ants on a patch of dirt, the pitter-patter of a frog on wet leaves, the drifting sounds of an elegant Saigon house in repose in the mid-20th century.
In subsequent features, he has expanded his vision, particularly with 2000’s delicate multicharacter family drama The Vertical Ray of the Sun (his greatest film, and sadly one of his lesser-seen efforts) and 2016’s Eternity, which told a multigenerational story entirely through the experiences of the women, resulting in a work of bracingly unfamiliar narrative cadences. Along the way, he also made a strange Josh Hartnett vehicle, I Come With the Rain (2009), and a moving Haruki Murakami adaptation, Norwegian Wood (2010), which, true to form, shed any conventional narrative trappings to give us a fever dream of romantic entanglement.
The Taste of Things, which won the Best Director prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and was (somewhat controversially) France’s submission for the Best International Feature Oscar, is probably Hung’s best-received picture in years, and it’s not hard to see why. There is, of course, the touching chemistry between stars Binoche and Magimel, who were married once but haven’t worked together in years; the luminous sadness in her eyes contrasts nicely (and tantalizingly) with a masochistic gleam in his. Then there are all the delectable dishes, conceived by master chef Pierre Gagnaire and prepared for the production by Michel Nave, which immediately place The Taste of Things in the pantheon of great food movies like Babette’s Feast, Tampopo, and Big Night.
Perhaps most importantly, The Taste of Things offers a perfect match between Hung’s artistic impulses and his subject matter. His camera focuses on the food, but this time it’s not at the expense of other, more familiar elements — because these characters’ lives do, in fact, revolve around food. Dodin, known as the “Napoleon of gastronomy,” is a fictional creation, though he’s apparently based on a real 18th-century gastronome, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. (Hung hasn’t so much adapted Marcel Rouff’s’s 1924 novel The Passionate Epicure as given it an extended prologue; the film ends where the book begins.) Eugénie has spent her life perfecting her craft, and her sole attention is the food, even though she is also Dodin’s lover — a lover whom she sometimes allows into her bedroom, though not always.
At first, the fact that Dodin and his friends are all men and that Eugénie is a woman working in a kitchen with other women might feel like a typical comment on gender relations in 19th-century France. (The film takes place around 1889.) But Dodin, we learn, would like nothing more than for Eugénie to join them at the table. She, however, prefers to stay in the kitchen and taste everything. “We eat everything you eat,” she tells the men when they ask her to join them. She knows every layer of flavor, every bite.
For Dodin and Eugénie, food isn’t just art but emotional currency. Through it they express their longing, their love, even their sorrow. Dodin has been trying to convince Eugénie for years to marry him, but she has devoted herself to the culinary arts; she fears that becoming a wife would mean no longer being seen as a cook, an unthinkable proposition that would rob her of her identity. By focusing on her labor and showing us the control she has over Dodin with it, Hung moves the household’s power center from the upstairs dining rooms and bedrooms to the kitchen downstairs, where everything happens. It becomes quite clear eventually that Eugénie is the true master of this house. Without her, Dodin is lost.
The film does make feints toward a more typical narrative progression. People come from continents away to partake of these meals and even invite Dodin and his household to cook-offs. Someone calling himself “the Prince of Eurasia” (wherever that is) offers up a challenge, and there is some initial suspense over what to serve. But even here, Hung toys with our expectations. He sets up climaxes that don’t quite arrive. He stretches and bends time, so that we sometimes lose our bearings on when certain scenes are occurring within the story’s progression.
But he never loses us, because he’s already established the unique language and rhythms of the picture. This allows him to eschew narrative satisfactions for sensual ones without sacrificing any emotion. In that sense, this elegant, romantic period film — very proper and prestigious and traditional perhaps on its surface — borders on the radical.
tags: movie review, review, tran anh hung, the taste of things, the pot au feu, cannes 2023, juliette binoche, benoît magimel, food movies, movies