The Taste of Things

This Oscar-shortlisted, Cannes Best Director-winning French delight simmers up a 19th-century romance between a cook and a gourmand.
Sarah Ward
Published on May 02, 2024


Cooking is an act of precision. It's also one of feeling. On the movie that nabbed him the Best Director award at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, Trần Anh Hùng (Éternité, Norwegian Wood) helms with the same care, spirit and emotion that his characters display in the kitchen. The Taste of Things' audience has a front-row seat to both, as this 1885-set French picture begins with dishes upon dishes being whipped up and the feature's gaze, via cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg (Final Cut), lenses their creation intimately and sumptuously. The film's extraordinary opening 30 minutes-plus, as the camera is trained on the stove and counter with slight detours around the room to collect or wash ingredients, is meticulously crafted and at the same time instinctual. Think: the sensations of observing the finest of fine-dining chefs and being a child watching your grandmother make culinary magic, as nearly every kid has, all rolled into one appetising introductory sequence.

In the home of gourmand Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel, The King of Algiers), and in its heart, his personal chef Eugénie (Juliette Binoche, The New Look) is so skilled and fastidious that she'd do small-screen hit The Bear proud; she's clearly a conjurer of the culinary arts, too. Hùng and Ricquebourg — the latter a well-deserving Lumiere Award-winner for his efforts here — are methodical with the choreography of setting the scene, while equally deeply immersed in the flow of the kitchen's tasks. As soundtracked by chirping birds, if this was The Taste of Things for 135 minutes and not just half an hour-ish, it'd remain a mesmerising movie. (A word of warning: eat before viewing, lest hunger pangs not just simmer but boil over.) Adapting 1924 novel The Passionate Epicure: La Vie et la Passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet by epicure Marcel Rouff as he scripts and directs, Hùng does more than fashion among the most-handsomely staged and shot imagery of a meal coming to life, but his approach to this entrée establishes the flavour.

For its main course, still never roaming far from the most-important room in the house, The Taste of Things sinks its teeth into a relationship that is first laid bare as the film warms up. Anyone who has ever been employed in a kitchen, or caught a movie or series — fiction and documentary alike — set within one, knows that there's no hiding anything in this always-on-the-go space. How people interact and react can't be seasoned over, either, amid the pots, pans, trays, whisks and spatulas. Accordingly, it's plain to see from the get-go that Dodin and Eugénie are as connected to each other as they are to food, even if Hùng doesn't layer in much in the way of backstory. As well as working together for 20 years, they're occasional lovers, and they'd be married if Dodin had his wish; that they're not isn't due to his lack of asking.

Featuring a seafood vol-au-vent, poached chicken, crayfish, a rack of veal, braised lettuce and more — and also a baked alaska that looks as divine as desserts get — that initial meal is a feast for Dodin and his friends at his rural estate. As it is served course by course, praise is showered Eugénie's way, as are pleas for her to join them at the table. She'd rather be behind the scenes; for her, the glory of creation, toiling at something that you're passionate about and dedicating your time to the only work you've ever wanted to do trumps everything. As Eugénie does, much of The Taste of Things shows rather than utters, commencing with the scant amount of dialogue said as lunch is being prepared with assistance from kitchenhand Violette (Galatéa Bellugi, Junkyard Dog), plus Violette's visiting niece Pauline (debutant Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), who shows a flair for cooking beyond her years.

That The Taste of Things is a sensual picture is evident from its debut bite. That it is patient — slow-burning in fact — is just as apparent. Its guiding force has form in 1993's The Scent of Green Papaya, the Vietnamese French director's Oscar-nominated debut; however, when you're making a movie about savouring what's truly valuable in life, from food and fervour to the pleasure of the person that you love's company, matching that notion is essential. Nothing about The Taste of Things is in a rush, or afraid to revel and linger. Drama is sprinkled through the storyline, as is grief, but the pacing and mood is contemplative to the point of being almost meditative. And that air of appreciation, of luxuriating, of enjoying exactly what's in the title when you can, is the vibe and ethos of its central couple. Irrespective of the turned-down proposals, Dodin and Eugénie have made relishing their shared affair with cuisine and their years side by side the core of their romance.

Binoche and Magimel, both luminous beneath painterly lighting whether they're standing over a chopping board, in the bedroom —including after an attention-grabbing cut from a pear to the naked form — or strolling through the sunny garden, aren't strangers in either a professional or personal capacity. In 1999, they co-starred as lovers in The Children of the Century. That same year, their daughter was born. Their off-screen relationship ended in 2003, but there's a comfort in their parts as Dodin and Eugénie that feels both raw and rich, not to mention rare. Watching characters who are allowed to delight in each other with decades of respect and affection behind them is indeed infrequent on-screen, and helps make The Taste of Things play like a delicacy.

This gorgeously filmed, performed and penned picture has become famous for something other than its contents, though: it's one of the reasons that Anatomy of a Fall doesn't have 2024's Best International Feature Oscar to its name. Each nation can only put one title forward each year, with France's submission committee opting for Hùng's film over Justine Triet's Palme d'Or-winner (at the same Cannes where Hùng took home the Best Director accolade). The choice didn't escape notice, even if it'll never now be known if Anatomy of a Fall would've pipped The Zone of Interest for the Academy's global cinema prize to add to its win for Best Original Screenplay, and also scoring four other nominations. The scrutiny over the pick, especially after The Taste of Things was shortlisted but not nominated — for anything — does this nourishing treat an injustice. As remains true in the culinary and cinematic spheres alike, a sublime meal is a sublime meal regardless of other exquisite dishes existing.


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