The Taste of Things

In the late nineteenth century in France’s Loire Valley, gourmand Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel) and his friends rhapsodize over the elaborate meals prepared by his chef Eugénie (Juliette Binoche).  Dodin and his cook have been lovers for years, but she continually refuses his proposals of marriage, wishing to remain independent.  And so Dodin shows his love in the language they both know so well by turning the tables and cooking for her in “The Taste of Things.”

Laura's Review: B+

Writer/director Anh Hùng Trần ("The Taste of Green Papaya"), who won the Best Director award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, adapts Marcel Rouff's novel by ending his film where the book begins, turning it into a literary prequel.  That was a marvelous idea, but his lush, sensuous, gastronomic work of art is marred only by his failure to find a satisfactory ending, his film deflating after the beginning of that book.  Still, it will be difficult to stop yourself from falling for Trần’s film, whether because of the romance that is its heart, the lavish food being prepared or the beauty of the location and its surroundings.  That the filmmaker reunited former partners who, although sharing a child, had not spoken in years, was a casting gamble that paid off brilliantly, Binoche commenting in interviews that the movie allowed she and Magimel to rediscover each other, a reconciliation that was a gift to their daughter, a connection that is palpable and a gift to us as well.

When Dodin first enters his kitchen in the pre-dawn light, his kitchen maid Violette (Galatéa Bellugi) informs him that Eugénie is gathering vegetables from the garden.  He will smell the preparation of his breakfast from his bath and compliment his chef on the omelet.  Violette introduces her young niece, Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), who she is taking care of that day, and Dodin invites them both to join the meal, instructing young Pauline that eating the omelet with a spoon will make all the difference.  Pauline will prove to be a quick study in the kitchen, watching as Eugénie prepares a feast for Dodin and his friends.

Two three-star Michelin chefs assisted with Trần’s film and Binoche and Magimel both learned how to prepare things expertly, director of photography Jonathan Ricquebourg’s ("The Death of Louis XIV") camera darting about the kitchen, staying close in on the action, but floating over the food as laid out on the dining table (the Boston Society of Film Critics awarded the film their Best Cinematography award).  Dodin notes Antonin Carême as an artist, declaring Auguste Escoffier and César Ritz, who had just begun opening grand hotels with fine cuisine, as the wave of the future, just like his own cook.  We see Eugénie flushed from the heat of the kitchen, then again from the praise of Rabaz (Emmanuel Salinger), Grimaud (Patrick d'Assumçao), Magot (Jan Hammenecker) and Beaubois (Frédéric Fisbach), Dodin’s fellow gastronomes who all also adore her.  Pauline has impressed all the adults as well, her ability to identify ingredients in a complex sauce extraordinary.  Eugénie clearly has an interest in mentoring the girl and will visit her parents who she discovers using copper and zinc rods to aid the growth of their produce.

Another grand meal will be contrasted against Eugénie’s, that of a Eurasian Prince (Mhamed Arezki) who invites Dodin and his friends, but his will be found opulent but lacking, with no clarity of menu.  Dodin’s own chefery will be painstaking, his and Eugénie’s cooking an expression of love.  And it is Dodin’s bold idea to return the Prince’s invitation with a simple meal of Pot au Feu (the film’s second title after "La passion de Dodin Bouffant") that could have made for a delicious final course here, especially in light of Pauline’s talents.        

Binoche and Magimel are magical together here, he exhibiting a lust for life with ease, she luminous whether working in the kitchen or soaking in a bath, the two both relaxed around each other yet slightly tentative, never taking their love for granted.   While the film loses something in its final scenes, reflection leaves us with these two lovers surrounded by fine food, wine and candlelight set within natural splendor.

“The Taste of Things” was France’s shortlisted submission for the International Oscar, but unfortunately failed to receive a nomination in a very competitive year.

Robin's Review: B+

After a December, 2023 awards qualifying run, IFC Films will release "The Taste of Things" in select theaters on 2/9/24 and wider on Valentine's Day.