The Taste of Things
2024, PG-13, 134 min. Directed by Trần Anh Hùng. Starring Juliette Binoche, Benoît Magimel, Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire, Patrick d'Assumçao, Galatea Bellugi, Mhamed Arezki.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 9, 2024
From its English-language title, French-Vietnamese filmmaker Trần Anh Hùng’s The Taste of Things (La passion de Dodin Bouffant) could be presumed to be about flavors. But the reality of the new film from the director of The Scent of Green Papaya is that it is about time. The hours spent by gourmet Dodin (Magimel) and his cook, Eugénie (Binoche), in the kitchen, preparing sumptuous feasts for his guests. The two decades they have spent as lovers. The torn calendar pages of their age. And, in the lengthy, almost wordless opening sequence, the time it takes to cook a meal in a late 19th-century kitchen, to build up levels of flavor and texture, to treat ingredients with the delicacy or strength required. In that scene, Trần resets the audience’s internal clock to a moment before our own rush-rush era.
That cooking sequence is a slow, warm, delicate dance filled not just with delicious visions of roasts, pies, stews, and desserts, but with character and relationships. It’s a scene that subtly unveils the dynamics of Dodin and Eugénie’s relationship, one that has the subtle comforts of a well-worn pan that still cooks better than anything fresh from the market.
Trần’s script (very loosely adapted from Marcel Rouff’s 1924 novel La vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, gourmet) isn’t simply an ode to the idea of food being the food of love. Instead, it’s an utterly charming and touching description of a tender relationship between two people in middle age. Foolish childhood passions are long gone, replaced with that glow that combines both comfort and perpetual yearning. Moreover, Binoche and Magimel are of ages that imply that their 20-year bond was not entered into in the flush of youth. Indeed, Trần plays with great delicacy on the fact that the actors were romantically involved for several years – not in an exploitative way, but as an emotional underpinning. It’s rare to see characters who are supposed to have years of intimacy built up between them depict those connections and familiarity convincingly, but Binoche and Magimel fill every quiet moment with those subtexts. Whether it’s as they pass ingredients in the kitchen, watch the evening descend from the lawn of his countryside home, or as he steals into her bedroom on a night in which she leaves the door unlocked, nothing need be said.
Of course, change does come, but again Trần keeps harsh or bitter tastes out of his recipe, even in the midst of tragedy. Yet there is nothing saccharine, as every moment is delivered with the subtle warmth of fresh honey, meaning they can bicker without the scene collapsing into a Marriage Story-esque meltdown or French New Wave laconic cruelty.
Inevitably, food is also an essential part of the film, and rarely has cooking and its resultant concoctions been so evocatively presented in any art form. But Trần doesn’t depend on glamour shots of elaborately stuffed this or braised that. The cooking – with its sticky, muddy, bloody raw ingredients all handled by the actors rather than Le Cordon Bleu-trained doubles – may evoke similar scenes in Gabriel Axel’s equally heartwarming Babette’s Feast. Yet the meals themselves are more talked of than shown, given a significance in description only matched by novelist James Joyce’s setting of the Christmas feast in “The Dead.” Such descriptions can evoke feelings from deep affection to humor, the latter expressed in Dodin’s scarcely suppressed biliousness at a menu designed for admiration, not consumption.
Both those earlier stories are ingredients in Trần’s story, and combine for an ending that speaks to both the novella’s sense of lost time and the film’s depiction of an act of extraordinary kindness. It’s an ending that can only come from the truest understanding between two adults. La nourriture, c'est l'amour, c'est la vie.