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Table Talk

The Taste of Things Is More Than an Ode to Pleasure

Tran Anh Hung’s gourmet-themed drama celebrates the superficial and the sublime.

Juliette Binoche as “Eugénie” and Benoît Magimel as “Dodin” in Tran Anh Hung’s “The Taste of Things.”
Courtesy of Stéphanie Branchu/IFC Films
Juliette Binoche as Eugénie and Benoît Magimel as Dodin in Tran Anh Hung’s “The Taste of Things.”

Some movie stars have an uncanny knack for catching the light; Juliette Binoche seems to be illuminated from within. Now just shy of 60, Binoche has conveyed her radiance in every kind of film imaginable, from radical art-house provocations to cozy crowd-pleasers to best picture winners; she’s collected accolades from Oscars to Césars to Silver Bears, played Coco Chanel and been the face of Lancôme, and acted for brand-name auteurs including Jean-Luc Godard, Krysztof Kieslowski, Abbas Kiarostami, and David Cronenberg. She is surely the only person to play love scenes with both Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart; ditto for acting opposite both Gerard Depardieu and Godzilla.

In light of such a résumé, it would be a stretch to say that Tran Anh Hung’s new gourmet-themed drama, The Taste of Things, ranks with Binoche’s greatest or most daring work: It’s a crowd-pleaser that throws its (chef’s) hat in the ring of the profitable middlebrow genre known as “food movies,” those cozily exoticized international productions that travel well by speaking the universal language of literal and figurative appetite. Think Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Tampopo, which sweetly conflate gluttony with eroticism through their own version of gustatory money shots: a glossy, narrativized form of what is colloquially known on reality television and social media as “food porn.” (A more perverse entry into this canon would be Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, with its poisoned omelets paving the way toward a queasy happily ever after.) 

It is worth asking what a filmmaker as gifted as Tranh is doing reaching for such relatively low-hanging fruit, and whether the directing prize he copped last year at Cannes represents a case of style over substance. Certainly, there’s an angle from which The Taste of Things looks like a cynical movie, and yet it repudiates skepticism by virtue of its own deceptive simplicity. As a celebration of indulgence, it’s pleasing enough, but it also limns the relationship between craftsmanship and artistry in ways that feel profound: the difference, one could say, between a recipe as a list of ingredients and a meal as its synthesis. Its subjects are people who strive as best they can to provide life’s essentials while also transcending them, and yet they—and the movie around them—are unpretentious. As a work of philosophy, The Taste of Things is as firmly rooted as the celeriac plant that appears during its prologue. It’s a movie about appreciation that touches on both the superficial and the sublime—an exercise in having its cake and eating it too. It’s light and heavy, flaky and rich at the same time.  

Technically, Binoche’s character is not the protagonist of The Taste of Things: That would be Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel), a prosperous and prestigious chef enjoying an active retirement in rural France in 1885. A soft-spoken man who keeps company with intellectuals—and who subtly presides over their group chats by means of careful understatement—Dodin’s reputation precedes him: His friends refer to him as the Napoleon of gastronomy, a good-natured jab at his inflated renown that belies the fact that he’s never had a Waterloo.

In adapting Marcel Rouff’s 1924 novel The Passionate Epicure, inspired by and dedicated to the famed nineteenth-century gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Tran—a Vietnamese-born filmmaker who studied film and photography in France—stringently eschews exposition. When we meet Dodin in the kitchen of his sprawling yet modest country house, it’s hard to tell if the sumptuous meal he’s preparing with a small support staff is meant for himself or for clients. Eventually we infer that he’s merely entertaining his grateful inner circle with five-star finesse; the film is set two decades before the inception of The Michelin Guide, but looking at the spread on Dodin’s table, with flaky seafood tartine giving way to braised veal and hand-cranked ice cream, you figure he’d have broken its rating system.

Dodin’s major collaborator is Eugénie (Binoche), his former sous chef, who’s since moved into his home and, on special occasions, into his bedroom. Their arrangement is tender, tacit, and mutually satisfying, although Dodin—whose gentle enthusiasm in all things gustatory is shaded by a deeper melancholy—sometimes catches himself desiring more. For her part, Eugénie asks for nothing, including marriage proposals; her self-sufficiency is part of her charm. Still, our hero wonders if it’s worth trying to make their union official while they both have years—and meals—left to share.      

The extratextual knowledge that Magimel and Binoche were once a couple—and that they have a daughter, Hana, who appeared with her mother in Claire Denis’s Both Sides of the Blade—is not essential to appreciating the sophistication of their actorly interplay here, but it creates a sort of inner frame around the action. The suspense of whether Eugénie will ultimately accede to her lover-slash-employer’s entreaties is balanced against the sensation of two masterful old pros rekindling—and channeling—evidently complex, private affections into their performances. In the bravura opening scene, which runs nearly half an hour with a minimum of dialogue, we watch the pair prepare the aforementioned meal with an intimacy that verges on telepathy. The pleasure that comes through is that of absolute proficiency filtered through passion, which is to say that their ministrations are so loving, nimble, and precise as to evoke art.

The display of technique is split between the cooking and the filmmaking; the Cannes jury was surely thinking about the opening sequence and its elegant choreography of bodies in a small but intuitively fluid space; the languorous long takes of hands carefully filling and draining pots and pans; the inserts of sauces stirred and strained; the borderline-synesthetic soundtrack, whose ambient sizzles and snaps go straight from our ears to our salivary glands (if Pavlov had been a director his work might have looked like this). The scene is as much a triumph of acting as it is of camerawork—of quietly expressive physicality that, beyond being convincing, evokes something of an inner life. When the guests eventually leave, they implore Eugénie that she should have joined them; she replies, sweetly, that she made whatever conversation she needed to via the meal itself.  

Dodin’s buddies, with their high-flown allusions to politics, art, and literature—i.e., the fact that baked Alaska was invented by a Frenchman named Balzac of no relation to the novelist—are good company, for him and for us, and The Taste of Things has a gently rollicking comic tone whenever they’re around: They’re like professional appreciators (as opposed to critics), and they help to put words around notions of taste that might otherwise remain remote or abstract. They also supply Tran’s greatest image, sitting together with napkins hung delicately over their heads to better take in the flavorful scent of some fresh ortolans—a tableau at once mysterious and sweetly goofy. The only other major character in the film, meanwhile, has a role as an audience surrogate that’s as affecting as it is obvious: Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoir), a teenage neighbor who dreams of being Dodin’s apprentice and whose facility is given its due by the master (she decodes the ingredients in a hearty bourguignon in a single bite, like a junior Hercule Poirot surveying a crime scene). “One cannot be a real gourmet before the age of 40,” Dodin tells her, which is less a discouragement than a promise: The possibility that Pauline might one day grow into a humble, homey virtuoso like Eugénie is laced with excitement and dread.

Her presence at the edge of the narrative activates the script’s not-so-hidden subtexts about the cycle of life and the passage of time, which are alluded to in a variety of contexts, some blunter than others. One of Dodin’s regular guests is a doctor, Rabaz (Emmanuel Salinger), who, arriving late to dinner, describes the baby he’s just delivered as having dined at its mother’s breast; later, walking through the woods together, Dodin and Eugénie compare seasonal preferences as a form of flirtation. He wistfully confesses his fondness for the freshness of spring while acknowledging he’s heading into his autumn years; she responds by saying that she prefers summer, and that as far she’s concerned, she plans to live the rest of her life in the sunshine. Never mind her recent and mysterious spate of fainting spells—uh oh, cough cough.

In moments like these—at once achingly sincere and painfully on the nose—The Taste of Things skirts prestige-picture self-parody. In truth, it wouldn’t take much, whether by hapless accident or satirical subversion, to push it over the proverbial edge: a teaspoon of skepticism here, an eyedropper of irony there, the faintest garnish of self-consciousness. It’s also easy to imagine a version of this movie that’s more alert to the story’s Belle Epoque trappings and that asks questions about the partially starving society lying beyond Dodin’s well-stocked pantry (Tran’s seeming lack of ambivalence about French history is fascinating in and of itself).

But even as its characters exist at a remove from a larger and more stratified reality, they’re hardly insulated from tragedy, and while Tran telegraphs the material’s late turn into melodrama, he handles the actual fallout with admirable restraint. In lieu of a dramatic climax, we get a series of codas, including a final scene between Magimel and Binoche that’s designed to leave a bittersweet aftertaste, which not only clarifies the tenderness of their feelings for one another but also the sense of existential deference encoded into their story: acceptance of the inevitable as a grace note. Their final exchange evokes—however indirectly—Warren Zevon’s deathless reminder in his waning days to “enjoy every sandwich”: to indulge and treasure the fleeting, nourishing pleasures one encounters—or prepares—before finally being asked to leave the table.