Juliette Binoche and Trần Anh Hùng Sample The Taste of Things
The ingredients of the lauded French romance about cooking
By Richard Whittaker,
7:00AM, Wed. Feb. 7, 2024
France has given much to the creative world: in art, in literature, in cinema. But it was arguably France that took the simple act of preparing and sharing a meal and turned it into an art form in its own right. That artistry and history is on full display in The Taste of Things, which is served in cinemas this Valentine's Day.
Adapted in part from Swiss author Marcel Rouff’s 1924 novel La Vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, gourmet (published in English as The Passionate Epicure), The Taste of Things focuses on a French kitchen in 1885, and on cook Eugénie (Juliette Binoche, Chocolat, Clouds of Sil Maria,) and Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel, The Piano Teacher, A Single Girl), the gourmand and restaurateur in whose kitchen she works, and their decades-long love affair.
However, that’s not what was in Rouff’s original book, which centers on Dodin and his search for a new cook after Eugénie dies. So while writer/director Trần Anh Hùng (The Scent of Green Papaya) was fascinated by the subject and the era, that story disinterested him, so he decided to tell the story before the book. “At my age,” he said, “I wanted to tell a story about marital love, about how people live together in harmony, how they respect each other, how they behave with each other. And with this idea I thought it would be very beautiful to have a female character who is very strong, and she’s the one who gave the nature of their relationship.”
That change was fortunate, because Binoche was equally disinterested in playing Eugénie as a supporting character and made that clear to Trần. She said, “In the first draft, I didn’t have enough space in order to give something real, deep, and special, and he heard me. He understood it, and he came back with a new script a month afterwards, and it’s the film we shot.”
So Trần‘s script became about Eugénie and Dodin equally, capturing their relationship, and their kitchen, in long scenes and long takes in which all the actors are really cooking those meals. For the director, that was essential, to capture how ingredients are transformed into dishes, and the constant flow and movement and pacing and patience of a working kitchen. He compared his decision to watching a movie about a portrait artist, where a close-up on an artist’s hand cuts to the actor’s face, and it’s clear they do not match. “That’s editing,” he said. “For making a movie about gastronomy, everything can be real because everyone can cook.”
Like most people, Binoche learned to cook as a child, when her mother taught her “the basics – doing a béchamel with flour and butter, and then putting milk in and it becomes a sauce.” Then, as a young adult, she added, her interest in cooking, and the time she had to engage in its sometimes lengthy processes, decreased. “I was doing pasta most of the time with veggies or meat [but] I’m not of a generation to just order. I’d rather do something simple, quickly, and tasty, rather than having to order and have sauce that’s just been put there, or oil that feels like it’s going to stay in your body for ages.”
Her children were, in part, also why she wanted to make this film. She and Magimel have an adult daughter together, and while she and her costar separated 20 years ago, those bonds informed their performances, and vice versa. “No matter what happens in life – separation, conflict, unsaid things – love is the winner, at the end of it all. It’s really what I felt in my chest, and I was so happy I was able to express it in this film. I felt it was a gift and I took it as a gift: not only for him and myself, but for our daughter.”
And the emotional state of the cook is undoubtedly a factor: and when someone says that you can taste the love in a dish, maybe that’s more literal than it sounds. After all, Binoche slyly noted, “The ingredients, the matter, is waiting for human beings to be nice to it. So, if we put in thoughts or emotions that are negative, it feels it.”
But there’s a difference between cooking dinner in your own home, and recreating the techniques and dishes of a well-appointed pre-fin de siècle rural French kitchen. However, those basics her mother taught her served her well (“there are principles that will always remain in kitchens”), and some of the dishes are constants of the French table, like the pot-au-feu, a beef and vegetable stew that becomes a narrative cornerstone of The Taste of Things. So when she entered the kitchen set, “I felt very much at home,” she said. “Cooking in that kitchen made me feel like cooking, because everything feels so genuine.”
However, this wasn't just fixing dinner at home. Enter multi-Michelin Star winner chef Pierre Gagnaire, a revolutionary in French cuisine who served as consultant on the film. Before shooting, Trần spent five days in Gagnaire’s kitchen as he prepared every dish from the film. “This was a relief for me,” said Trần, “because it was so simple. He was not trying to do something beautiful. It was something that looks necessary, and then he puts everything together and it becomes beautiful. But there’s not so much art in it. At the end, it’s only a dish that we will chew and swallow. So it was quite liberating to see him cooking.”
But why is food – the fifth art, as it is known – so associated with French culture?
It was because of one man: Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, known across 19th century Europe as simply Talleyrand. He was many things, but not a cook. Born to an aristocratic family in pre-revolutionary France, he became a bishop, then a leading member of the revolution, and, most importantly, Napoleon’s chief diplomat. His meals, created by pâtissier Marie-Antoine Carême (the first superstar chef), became legendary. Binoche explained, “He took a castle and invited his chef to do the best cuisine possible for all those ambassadors from around the world. So the reputation of French cuisine started there.”
“Napoleon didn’t like food,” Trần added. “He can eat anything, and it’s just to feed himself, and that’s it. But he knew the importance of food in politics. ... It softens everything and puts people in a very good mood.” (Indeed, it’s said that those meals were a subtle part of Talleyrand’s negotiating tactics after Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, and that Tsar Alexander I of Russia was thinking with his sated stomach, rather than his head, during negotiations of the Treaty of Paris).
Suddenly, the meal becomes an experience that can be planned out, constructed, discussed, and there is new importance to flavor profiles, menus, etiquette, seating plans, conversation. For the French, this has become a part of everyday life to this day, but for a 12-year-old boy, recently arrived from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. “I was invited to that kind of family dinner, and it was quite scary for me,” Trần said, “because I can see that the conversation is very interesting because the people around the table talk about culture, about music, about literature, about film, and, at a certain moment, questions will be asked to the children. ‘What did you read lately that is interesting? Can you talk about it?’ And the child must tell what he likes in the book, and it’s not easy.”
But that structure was something that Trần soon came to admire, and then later came to appreciate as being like a scripted drama, with courses instead of acts. “It’s like storytelling, because after this dish you have to have that kind of wine to refresh your palette, or after this dish you have a little bit of sorbet.”
Yet while The Taste of Things is a celebration of French cuisine, Trần still managed to fit in a little homage to his Vietnamese heritage. French chefs may be bemused about the scene in which chicken feet are peeled, removing the scaly, inedible, outer skin. Why is this done with boiling water, rather than the traditional French technique of holding the feet over the fire? Because the water way is the Vietnamese way, the way that Trần saw it being done as a child. “I found it more interesting, more sensual,” he said (and the French technique can also leave the flesh tougher and singed) but he still made sure to check in with Chef Gagnaire before he made the change. “He said, ‘Of course!’”
The Taste of Things will be released by IFC in limited theatres Feb. 9, and on general release on Feb. 14.