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The Taste of Things
La passion de Dodin Bouffant
The Pot-au-Feu

Directed by Anh Hung Tran
Produced by Olivier Delbosc
Written by Trần Anh Hùng
With: Juliette Binoche, Benoît Magimel, Emmanuel Salinger, Patrick d'Assumçao, Galatéa Bellugi, Jan Hammenecker, Frédéric Fisbach, Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire, Jean-Marc Roulot, Yannik Landrein, Sarah Adler, and Mhamed Arezki
Cinematography: Jonathan Ricquebourg
Editing: Mario Battistel
Runtime: 135 min
Release Date: 08 November 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color: Color

Being someone with a rather unsophisticated palate, my reaction to movies about preparing and consuming sumptuous meals has never been as ecstatic as most of my fellow art-house denizens. Pictures such as Tampopo, Babette's Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, Big Night, and their ilk are, of course, about much more than cooking and eating. But to the extent these pictures do focus on food, I lack both the real-life gastronomic experience and the sensory receptors to imagine what is presented on screen would taste like. My favorite "food movies" are those in which each item described or consumed conveys a strong, uncomplicated taste. For example, in Pulp Fiction, almost every scene features food with easily discernable flavors. Samuel L. Jackson's Jules takes a bite of the pineapple-and-mustard-adorned Big Kahuna Burger and washes it down with a sip of fountain Sprite through a plastic straw, Maria de Medeiros' Fabienne waxes poetically about blueberry pancakes she’s dreaming of having for breakfast, and Harvey Kietel's Mr. Wolfe pauses during a tense situation to express appreciation after the first sip of the gourmet coffee he's requested. These specific, everyday tastes are relatively common experiences that I can practically sense. The cinematic representations of more complex flavors are a little beyond me, as is the current obsession with reality TV food shows and cooking competitions—why do people like to watch other people make food they can't eat?

That said, this year's Cannes Film Festival Best Director winner and France's submission for the International Film Oscar, The Taste of Things, is an entirely different type of food movie than I've encountered before. Director Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya, I Come with the Rain, Eternity) loosely adapts Marcel Rouff's 1924 novel, La Vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet into a cinematic love story in which the preparation of food is the principal love language. Here, food is not used as a substitute for love or an illustration of familial feelings, as in Like Water for Chocolate or Big Night. Instead, it is the purest form and ultimate expression of love for the characters. The central couple in this film also converse, have sex, take walks together, and share various other activities, but the real heat is in the kitchen.

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel star as culinary artists living in the South of France at some point during the late nineteenth century. The exact time period, like the specifics of the living and working arrangements, is intentionally vague. Much as the gourmand Dodin Bouffant, played by Magimel, would like to wed his Personal Chef Eugénie, played by Binoche, the two are not married. Still, they spend far more time together in the kitchen where they work and in the chateau they live in, and they have a closer romantic bond than many married couples. The narrative, such as it is, concerns changes in the perfectly balanced routines of these two fervently independent people. Both are contentedly in their autumn years, and, conscious that life will not go on forever, they embrace the mentoring of a young local girl with a far more developed palate than is usual for her age.

Like another of 2023's best films, Celine Song's Past Lives, The Taste of Things is an unusual love story in which there is no substantial conflict apart from the realities of daily life. Both films are about embracing the present moment, though the age of the characters in The Taste of Things makes the savoring of what one enjoys in the here and now all the richer. They don't know how many more delicious servings remain. Binoche is radiant as the mysterious Eugénie, a woman of few words whose warm facial expressions divulge a keen and profoundly self-aware mind. Magimel conveys the joy he takes in serving and eating with others whose passion for food is as exacting as his own. He's known as "the Napoleon of gastronomy," but the fact that he is the best at his craft rarely seems like a burden to him. Unlike so many geniuses in movies who are frustrated that no one can fully understand the specifics of what makes them special, Bouffant has his esteemed clientele, and he has Eugénie, with whom he's been working for twenty years. Her appreciation of him is all he requires.

Binoche and Magimel were lovers decades ago and have a daughter together. Perhaps the rapport of their shared past is the secret ingredient that seasons this broth to such perfection. But even without knowing that extra-textural layer, one gets a tangible sense of how well these characters know and appreciate each other. It is a rare romantic film focusing on mature themes of achieving and treasuring balance in one's life, work, and primary relationships.

Twitter Capsule:

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel define on-screen chemistry in the mature sense of the term as characters who create gastronomic chemistry together in Trần Anh Hùng’s exquisite autumn-years romance in which food is the main expression of love.