The Taste of Others

Jean-Jacques Castella (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is an unpolished industrialist whose social contacts are only through the efforts of his condescending wife, Angelique (Christiane Millet). Things change when he reluctantly attends a play featuring his niece in a small role and he becomes smitten with an actress, Clara (Anne Alvaro). Though she thinks he's just a dolt, he eventually charms her off her feet in "The Taste of Others."

Laura's Review: A-

Have you ever misjudged someone, treated them badly, then felt horrible about it? This and other aspects of the human condition are explored in cowriter/director/star Agnes Jaoui's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee "The Taste of Others."

The film begins by following the seemingly unrelated conversations of two tables of diners. Castella (cowriter Jean-Pierre Bacri, "Place Vendome") is a businessman attempting to sneak a sweet past his controlling wife Angelique (Christiane Millet) while also carrying on a business lunch. At another table, storytelling Franck (Gerard Lanvin) and literal Bruno (Alain Chabat, "French Twist") appear to have little in common until we learn that Franck is Castella's bodyguard and Bruno his driver.

Castella interviews Clara (Anne Alvaro, "Danton") as an English teacher, but dismisses her when she doesn't produce a fun technique. Later, when he's dragged to a stage production of Berenice by his wife (his niece has a small part in the production), Castella is entranced by Clara in the lead role and begins to ardently pursue her, much to her dismay (she needs his English lesson money, but finds him boorish and uneducated). Meanwhile Bruno encounters Manie (Agnes Jaoui) tending the bar at a cafe and she informs him they once slept together. While they aren't successful rekindling the former flame (Bruno can't believe he didn't remember while Manie can't believe she did), Manie begins a relationship with Franck. Manie's also buddies with Clara and the rest of the theatrical troupe customers, closing the circle of the main cast. A subplot, where Angelique forces her interior decorating skills upon her sister-in-law Beatrice (Brigitte Catillon, "Artemisia"), most literally conveys the film's title.

This warm, funny, all too human story is about how people's myopia can lead them astray in their search for happiness. It's an assured, typically French (conversation heavy) piece of work by Jaoui and her costar Bacri. Jaoui gets top notch work from her entire cast. (Oddly, the central characters all resemble American stars with Jaoui herself looking like "Ally McBeal's" Courtney Thorne-Smith, Bacri like "L.A. Law's" Alan Rachins, Clara like Lily Tomlin and Bruno like Peter Riegart.) The film is beautifully editted (Herve de Luze), sometimes for comic effect (Flucky, Angelique's puffball little dog who 'always bites for a good reason,' gamboling about) or to jump across time while one character glides from one encounter to the next.

"The Taste of Others" is both heartbreaking and hopeful. Alvara's final smile is like something out of a constellation while Bruno's mysterious, solitary flute playing is given satisfying closure for both the character and the film. Small moments, even when anticipated (Castella placing his newly purchased modern painting amidst his wife's flowery, fluffy decor), bring large payoffs. "The Taste of Others" is a real treat.

Robin's Review: B+

Writer/director/actress Agnes Jaoui, with cowriter/costar, Bacri, have crafted a terrific little slice of life in today's France, but the action could take place anywhere. Monsieur Castella is a well-to-do businessman whose steel barrel-making company is about to go international. His wife, Angelique, is a demanding shrew who fashions herself to be a talented interior decorator and arts patron. His driver, Bruno (Alain Chabat), meets an old flame, Manie (Agnes Jaoui), but forgot that they made love one night years before. Castella hires struggling actress Clara to teach him English and falls for her in the process. And his temporary bodyguard, Frank, begins a noncommittal romance with Manie. There is all this and more going on in director Jaoui's Oscar nominated film.

In what may well be one of the best ensemble performances this year, "The Taste of Others" is a simple tale of one man's mid-life crisis, Jean-Jacques Castella, which takes place while life unfolds, too, for those around him. Jean-Jacques is an uptight, aggressive manufacturer whose wife dominates his home-life, along with her nasty little dog, Fluckie. When he is forced to attend a play with his wife, becomes captivated with Clara. He asks her to teach him English and, in his own sometimes-boorish ways, tries to insinuate himself into her life. She resists - strongly. Meanwhile, life goes on for everyone else and they have their own trials and tribulations.

Jaoui and Bacri don't tell us a conventional kind of story, opting instead for the slice of life and love that centers on Castella, but fully involves the rest, too. There is depth to all of the characters with Bacri first among equals as Jean-Jacques. He is almost unlikable when we first meet him. He is taciturn, almost rude, when he interviews Clara for a tutoring job. When he realizes the actress in his niece's play is the same woman, he becomes obsessed with her and realizes the sham his marriage has become. We get to know the man and enjoy his metamorphosis into a kinder, gentler and much more likable guy.

The rest of the cast is uniformly first rate with Anne Alvaro a standout as Clara. She's 40 years old, still has to struggle to get decent roles and has to teach English to make ends meet. The years of hard work and dedication to her profession shows on her face and her attitude is somewhere between despairing and pissed off. The friendships that develop between Frank and Bruno, Bruno and Manie, and Frank and Manie are handled neatly and with feeling by all three actors. Christine Millet, in the tough role as the witchy wife, is funny, with her horrible taste in home furnishings, and sad, as she fails to see the changes taking place in her husband.

Helmer Jaoui does an exemplary job in mustering the numerous talents (herself included) that appear on the screen. Besides the large principal cast, there is also a bevy of supporting characters that flesh out the background fully. "The Taste of Others" was France's submission for Oscar contention this years (instead of the great "Girl on the Bridge," but I digress) and is a sound introduction to America for Jaoui and the rest of the talented cast and crew.