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14 February 2024

Why The Taste of Things is more than just “food porn”

The movie was derided by French critics as indulgent, with undertones of rancid conservatism. Actually, it’s a love story.

By David Sexton

The Taste of Things, also known as The Pot-au-Feu, and La Passion de Dodin Bouffant, is the film that France’s National Cinema Centre chose to enter for Best International Feature at the Oscars, rather than the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, Anatomy of a Fall.

In the event, The Taste of Things didn’t make the shortlist for the category, while Anatomy of a Fall is up for many prizes anyway, including Best Picture and Best Director. So that decision, allegedly made to punish Anatomy of a Fall’s director, Justine Triet, for criticising Emmanuel Macron’s policies, now looks a bit daft.

The Taste of Things, a rhapsody about a great gourmand and his partner cook, was not well reviewed in France either, scoring only 3.1 stars out of 5 on the reviews aggregator site AlloCiné. Several critics derided it as food porn blended with rancid conservatism, a heritage product destined for the export market, with its lead actors, Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel, offensively flogging “La Fraaaaance des ortolans”, the now outlawed delicacy of tiny songbirds, greedily consumed in the film.

Yet the film, I found to my surprise, is a wonder. The plot is minimal. The year is 1885. “The Napoleon of the culinary arts”, Dodin (Magimel), has spent 20 years pursuing his passion in the company of a great cook, Eugénie (Binoche), in an exquisite small chateau in the Loire (Château de Raguin near Chazé-sur-Argos). The film’s first 40 minutes, with little dialogue and no music, lovingly shows us Eugénie preparing, in a huge and glorious kitchen, a delectable multi-course meal, for the delight of Dodin and his portly male friends.

A preposterous potentate, the Prince of Eurasia, invites this renowned arbiter of taste and his entourage to a wildly excessive feast. Dodin is not impressed, observing that the meal has “no air, no logic, no line”. To set him right, he invites the prince back for a meal, planning a simple pot-au-feu as the main course.

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All is not well, though. Eugénie, sometimes Dodin’s partner in bed as well as in the kitchen, is unwell. Dodin has often asked her to marry him but she has never agreed. “Aren’t we happy like this?” she asks. To woo her, he prepares a meal of the greatest refinement (oysters, chicken with truffles, pear). “May I watch you eat?” he asks.

The Taste of Things is loosely based on a 1920 novel, The Life and Passion of Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet, by Marcel Rouff (1877-1936), which makes the case for gastronomy, the glory of France, as an art equal to any, and Dodin as “the Beethoven of cuisine, the Shakespeare of the table”. The taste for gastronomy is “innate in the race”, Rouff argues, not a phrase readily used today. The film, though, is not the work of a French native but of Tran Anh Hung, who came to France from Vietnam at the age of 12. Hung’s love of France has the inflection of choice, rather than inheritance, however embarrassing some hip French critics may find such traditionalism. Wholly French the film may be, but there’s a Buddhist sensibility here too.

And The Taste of Things is not actually a foodie film, after all, despite the extreme authenticity of the cooking, supervised by the chef Pierre Gagnaire. Rouff’s novel opens after Eugénie has died. Hung, though, creating a kind of prequel, makes the couple’s relationship central, conjugality the true story here. “The movie is extremely personal, and it’s really about me and my wife,” he has said. Tran Nu Yen Khe starred in Hung’s debut, The Scent of Green Papaya, of 1993; she has superbly art-directed The Taste of Things, which is dedicated to her. Towards the end, Dodin tells Eugénie, “St Augustine said that happiness is continuing to desire what one already has.”

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel were once a couple too; they have a daughter but have been separated for 20 years and not worked together for 25. They are effortlessly right together here, Binoche ever fascinating to watch, Magimel lumbering, intent, breathing heavily as he concentrates in the kitchen. Without music, the sound of the cooking is remarkably sensual, supplemented only by birdsong; when Andrew von Oeyen’s piano transcription of the “Méditation” from Massenet’s Thaïs is heard over the end credits, it’s the more stunning for such reserve.

The Taste of Things would be easy to mock. A movie made for Hannibal Lecter (and not, by the way, for vegetarians). Retrograde and slow, without the least interest in the social, economic and class realities of its setting. And yet, just lovely.

“The Taste of Things” is in cinemas now

[See also: American Fiction review: a bold and bracing satire of publishing’s race problem]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland

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