A passionately crafted and pointed look at cooking, cuisine, love, and romance are the aspects that celebrate the human spirit. The Taste of Things delivers a highly satisfying story concerning marital drama and the striving for perfection. The latest film from Vietnamese French auteur Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya, The Vertical Ray of the Sun) collaborates quite well with actors Benoît Magimel and Juliette Binoche. The collaboration together showcases Magimel and Binoche enduring exceptional performances that are both emotional and physical, with their savory food preparation skills and measurable emotions being just some of the appealing aspects of this French historical romantic drama.
Set in the unspecified French countryside in 1885, this film, winner of the Cannes Best Directing Award for Hung, vanguards a luminous narrative with many emotional payoffs that consist of such subjects as unconditional love, determinism, persistence, and familial hardship. The taste of delicious food is the unique bond that brings loved ones together with well-prepared and exquisite dishes.
While the film’s first hour will recall other food movies like Eat Man Drink Woman, Tampopo, Big Night, and even Hung’s own The Scent of Green Papaya that indulge the viewer with their celebration of food, Hung doesn’t rehash the food movie tropes as it becomes more about the laborious impact of food creation. While the film feels playful at first with its skillful montages and the first hour is observational, the atmosphere holds an illusory effect with the imagery in Hung’s direction and Jonathan Ricquebourg’s glorious cinematography.
The film’s first half hour is very experiential, and its mostly food preparation that is always awe-inspiring. The narrative opens with Eugénie (Binoche), a seasoned chef in the estate-owned Dodin (Magimel), where she has provided the dining for over 20 years, making lavish, set-up courses for him, his friends, and associates. The estate is almost like its own restaurants, where many are eager to eat dinner and come in gatherings to enjoy Eugénie’s savory gourmets. While the actors spent a lot of time learning how to prepare, the choreography of the meal prep is undeniably astonishing, as Richquiebourg’s energetic camerawork keeps up with the energy in the kitchen. Vegetables are diced, ingredients are mixed in with the food, and water plays an important role in how it rinses, cools, and impacts food production. While it celebrates food, the story eventually becomes more about the people who cook and eat it.
Once dinner is served and the guests clear out for the night, we realize that Eugénie and Dodin are lovers, and it is arranged that she has her freedom. She even has her own bedroom, and she comes and goes to Dodin’s room when she pleases. Regardless, there is deep love the two share. Dodin has proposed to Eugénie before, but their arrangements have already brought both of them enough fulfillment. There are many tender scenes that they share together, enjoying cheese and the sea, where you feel like they already have a comfortable marriage together as you can sense the fondness and mutual love that the two hold for one another. She understands her culinary skills and Dodin’s passion for food hold great value for each other, and anything more could possibly disrupt it.
Eugénie is drained, though; she keeps having fainting spells, and the doctor comes in for casual visits. With Eugénie’s condition worsening, Dodin is faced with the challenge of matching Eugénie’s simple pot-au-feu to an arriving prince from Asia. Instead of getting lost in melodrama or plotting, Hung is more harmonized with atmosphere and setting. There is a sensuality in the exchanges and internalization that build up the empathy on display.
The second half of the film is stylistically different than the first. Where the first half feels more playful, the second holds more sorrow but is never grueling. There are a lot of lightly poetic, humanistic touches throughout the film that show Hung holds just as much humanism as he does for his visual grandeur. At first, the execution feels a tad uneven, but generally the rhymes find their flow all the way up until its masterful final act in the kitchen, in which Hung’s power of persistence holds a towering payoff.
What an elegant food movie that understands the perseverance of a legacy. Throughout life, recipes are passed down to us for generations, and food preparations change. The insistent call of “striving for perfection” is explored here without ever being oversimplified. The Taste of Things is not only an excellent food movie but also an affectionate love story about collaboration and adhering to one’s passions and gifts. It’s a terrific film about how much time and agony is put into the simple pleasures of life, yet there will always be someone who will understand how certain passions and gifts aren’t so simple after all.
THE TASTES OF THINGS opens in limited theaters Friday, February 9th.