THE STORY – Tells the story of Eugenie, an esteemed cook, and Dodin, the fine gourmet she has been working for over the last 20 years.
THE CAST – Juliette Binoche, Benoît Magimel, Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire & Jean-Marc Roulot
THE TEAM – Tran Anh Hung (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 134 Minutes
After making his directorial debut with “The Scent of Green Papaya” in 1993 at the Cannes Film Festival in Un Certain Regard, thirty years later, French Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung finally bows into the Cannes competition with the cinematic equivalent of an eight-course meal prepared by the best of chefs and accompanied by the choicest wines. Adapting Marcel Rouff’s novel “La Vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, gourmet,” Hung keeps the story to little more than a special list of ingredients to cook up his magic in “The Taste Of Things” (originally titled “The Passion of Dodin Bouffant” and then “The Pot-au-Feu”).
Juliette Binoche is Euginie, a cook at the home of M. Dodin, played with exceptional charm by Benoît Magimel, a gourmet of exceptional taste. Together they create recipes and meals from ingredients sourced from their own garden and nearby farms. In the kitchen, they work with serious intent and in concert, like musicians utterly committed to the concerto. Occasionally, this intimacy is extended to an upstairs-downstairs romance, though Eugenie has so far resisted Dodin’s marriage proposals reasoning that they already have the best relationship possible. But Dodin is a romantic who waxes poetic about his food and his love – comparing the creation of a new recipe to the discovery of a star and decides to prepare a proposal in the form of a meal he will cook for her.
The 76th Cannes film festival has been flecked with vomit throughout. We’ve had the moral sick-to-the-stomach feeling of Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” and Jessica Hausner’s nauseating (but for different reasons) “Club Zero.” Perhaps it was inevitable with Jury President Reuben Ostlund, director of the Palme winning regurgitation derby “Triangle of Sadness,” presiding. And so it is heartening to have something from the opposite side of the nutritional spectrum that is wholly satisfying.
Jonathan Ricquebourg’s camera prowls the kitchen and the garden, lapping up the details and the changes in light. Its cinematography has umami as well as texture and temperature. Steam envelopes faces, and if your mouth isn’t watering at the end of an opening scene of cooking that lasts about twenty minutes, then you have no pulse. At one point, the light of the setting sun comes through the low windows bathing the kitchen in a light as golden as syrup, knowingly aware of the sugary swoon. As beautiful as it is to look at, this is a film you can also smell and taste.
This is the least cynical film to play at Cannes this year. Beyond the food – but unavoidably entwined with it – is the changing relationship between Euginie and Dodin. Here, Binoche and Magimel are exquisite, with a chemistry that utterly conveys their twenty-year relationship and ongoing love. Magimel, in particular, following his award-winning performance in last year’s “Pacifiction,” proves himself to be one of France’s most watchable actors. There is no class politics; there’s minimal context at all. This is cooking as pure art. Devoid of all else. All that matters is the flavor. The kitchen is almost a utopian space where class and sex are reduced to a sauce and friendship, and love can operate freely. Gordon Ramsey, this is not. As such, with no conflict or grit, this will not be to everybody’s taste. Ditto that for vegetarians and vegans who might end up questioning their life choices if not repelled by the multiple scenes of eggs being whisked and meat and fish prepared and cooked.
Comparisons will be made with “Barbette’s Feast” (1987) and “Big Night” (1996), but this is the Le Mans of food movies, getting rid of all that is extraneous to concentrate on the most important room in the house. The cooking is the story: the food is the point. The dream – if there is one – is that every cook should find their gourmet and every gourmet be blessed with finding their cook. “The Pot au Feu” of the original title is a simple, humble dish – a hot pot – but with genius and love can be elevated to a work of art, and Hung’s film goes beyond comfort food for the eyes to nourish the soul.