An unassuming culinary drama on the surface, Trân Anh Hùng’s The Taste of Things is a rhapsodic romance and one of the year’s most scintillating films. The tale of a renowned French gourmet chef and his diligent head cook, the movie’s central will-they-won’t-they dynamic will have you leaning forward in anticipation — just as much as the exquisite dishes cooked by the leading duo will leave your palate moist and your belly rumbling.
Cheered on the festival circuit, it’s a film in which food is the language of love, and love in turn is a silent conversation between middle-aged professionals who are experts at their craft. The Taste of Things comes wrapped in some of the most gorgeous and thoughtful filmmaking this side of Babette’s Feast — a fellow contender for the greatest food movie ever made — with fine-tuned, lived-in performances that intrigue as much as they endear.
What is The Taste of Things about?
Credit: IFC Films
Set in the French countryside in the late 19th century, The Taste of Things follows famous gastronome Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel) and his live-in cook, Eugénie (Juliette Binoche), who cooks both for him and with him, depending on the occasion. The actors, who are married in real life, put on a clinic of passionate performance, deepening each scene and interaction far beyond your ordinary romantic drama.
The film has a sense of idealism in its depiction of spaces, like the sprawling kitchen in Dodin’s mansion. It’s warm and rustic, and as Dodin prepares to entertain his fancy guests, he and Eugénie begin preparing for a feast with the help of Eugénie’s assistant, Violet (Galatéa Bellugi), and Violet’s curious young niece, Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), a novice in the kitchen.
The scene features no score, except for the scraping of utensils and the simmering of various meats in pots and pans as the quartet works in harmony, breaking the meditative silence only on occasion so that Dodin can test the knowledge and taste of preteen newcomer Pauline.
As the feast continues upstairs, with Dodin engaging a handful of his friends (doctors and other high-society types) in academic banter, Eugénie and her helpers bring each dish to fruition, preparing and presenting them with the utmost care. However, Eugénie is no servant. After the meal, the five men upstairs come down to greet her as an old friend whose presence they miss in the dining room. “I converse with you through the food you eat,” she joyfully retorts.
This introduction establishes the parameters of the film’s insular fantasy, wherein ideas of class are far from the movie’s mind (they appear to be in the characters’ rearview), since what’s on the tip of the filmmaker’s tongue is far more vital. There’s an unspoken comfort between Eugénie and Dodin, who have worked together for 20 years. And though it seems like they’ve been intimate on many occasions, theirs is a relationship built on mutual respect. Dodin studies and invents dishes, reading out recipes that Eugénie cooks to perfection, but their back-and-forth of ideas makes each meal they prepare an intimate collaboration.
Dodin, however, is determined to make Eugénie his wife, and though she feels just as strongly as he does, her professional ambitions (and her contentment) raise the question of whether their situation ought to change — or what might happen if it does. There is also the trouble of Eugénie’s health and the fainting spells she keeps to herself, though as far as Dodin knows (and as far as she lets him in), her hesitancy to marry is but a wall at which he might be able to slowly and respectfully chip away.
There isn’t a hint of ugliness in the story’s conflict, making it perhaps the ideal romantic escape, at least at first. This film is eventually marred by tragic developments midway through. But what never changes over the course of its 134 minutes is the breathtaking love at its center. Buoyed by so many different, equally cogent themes, the film has entirely different names in various territories, each of which represents a fundamental facet of its drama.
Its U.S. title is The Taste of Things, which rolls off the tongue and speaks to its ethereal nature, created by a dancing camera and scenes awash in golden light. Its title in other territories is The Pot-au-Feu, after a dish of beef and vegetable stew that becomes central to the plot. In France, it’s called La Passion de Dodin Bouffant (“The Passion of Dodin Bouffant,”) a tale of one man’s dueling passions, and how they each represent his lust for life.
The Taste of Things is deceptively simple.
Describing The Taste of Things, or even saying its title out loud, makes it seem captivating and mysterious — almost intellectual in a way, not unlike the various gastronomical conversations and debates Dodin ends up embroiled in with his friends.
“Wine is the intellectual side of a meal,” they joke, but there’s no snobbery involved. Despite their stature in society and their selectiveness with food, wine and conversation are to be shared. The taste of things — good things, and all things — is a communal experience. Eating, for them, is a ritual, sometimes a ridiculous one (like when they chow down on ortolans with handkerchiefs covering their heads). But taste, for Dodin and Eugénie, is something that can be refined and nurtured, like love itself. It isn’t meant to be hoarded. This is illustrated by their consideration of taking Pauline under their wing. There’s nothing sinister beneath anyone’s interactions; the film is incredibly good-natured.
The characters’ only hint of food snobbery and selectiveness arises when they’re invited to dine with a fictitious prince of Eurasia. But what they decry more than the meal’s quality is its sense of excess without much to show for it. The ostensible plot arises when Dodin offers to cook for the prince, and as he brainstorms his menu, he also inches closer to showing Eugénie how much she means to him. The dish he lands on for the meal is the pot-a-feu, often regarded as representative of French cuisine. It’s the perfect centerpiece for a film so distinctly and stereotypically French in its food and sensuous passions that a joking line in the film even references this symbolic Frenchness. And yet, there’s a deeper layer to the presence of the pot-au-feu: the idea of beauty and complexity within something considered simple. As a dish, it’s a hearty and even pedestrian staple, but its ingredients, when prepared by a master’s hand, can become elevated — which is what Dodin hopes to do. It’s symbolic of the film itself, a simple love story on the surface that Hùng turns luminous through his deft touch and his unyielding focus on the silences between people and what they mean.
Every ingredient of The Taste of Things is cooked to perfection.
Credit: IFC Films
The various themes and ideas put forth by the film manifest largely through performance. Binoche’s radiant, self-assured conception of Eugénie makes her perpetually watchable, and when she plays off her illness as something mundane, she invites, through her stern independence, an emotional paradox. All you want is to care for her in the few fleeting seconds she lets herself display vulnerability amid Binoche’s smiles, which command and delight in equal measure.
As Dodin, Magimel is the perfect foil to Binoche, juggling excitement and trepidation with a weary anxiety about his job, worn in a perpetually burdened expression. However, his fog of exhaustion and anxiety lifts as soon as Eugénie enters the room. His gaze is one of unmistakable worship and adoration, even two decades on. Like cooking, love for Dodin seems like a never-ending process, constantly refined. In The Taste of Things, there’s no boundary between being in love and falling in love, a delicate balance struck by both Binoche and Magimel in each and every scene.
All of this is bound by Hùng’s passionate, dreamlike filmmaking, in tandem with cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg. The camera practically never stops moving: It floats between characters in lengthy master shots as they cook, moving inward and outward, from close-ups to medium-wide shots and back. Each shot is so magnetic and engaging, you seldom notice that the filmmaker has chosen to avoid cutting for minutes at a time. The frame floats as if on air, like it’s being blown by a gentle breeze. Every shot becomes rhythmic in its motion, and editor Mario Battistel ensures that when it does finally cut, the result is completely seamless. It may as well be music.
Each frame is awash in golden light, whether refracted through chandeliers and forming fuzzy halos around Dodin as he’s lost in thought, or beaming in through windows in the afternoon, illuminating the kitchen in an ethereal haze — or, at dusk, beating down on an isolated fragment of a room through a corner window, when Dodin is at his lowest.
It’s poetry written through light, and through gazes that fill the screen with a quiet exuberance that you can reach out and touch, taste, and smell. No matter what title it goes by, it’s likely to stand the test of time as a landmark cinematic romance — the kind of towering achievement that isn’t just about falling in love, but embodies the experience wholly.
The Taste of Things was reviewed out of the New York Film Festival. IFC Films will release The Taste of Things in limited release Feb. 9 2024, before expanding on Feb. 14.