An acclaimed chef in 1880s France uses his incredible culinary talents to boldly win the heart of a beloved cook. The Taste of Things can best be described as a sumptuous cinematic feast for the soul. Vietnamese auteur Trần Anh Hùng, Best Director winner at last year’s 76th Cannes Film Festival, masterfully crafts a gastronomic romance destined to be a modern classic. He tells a poetically entrancing love story through the clanking of brass pots and wondrous simmering stews in an idyllic château’s kitchen.
Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) dutifully arranges a variety of meats, fish, and vegetables for an important dinner later that night. She beckons her assistant, Violette (Galatea Bellugi), to stoke embers in the fire. The stove must be hot and ready before they begin. Violette, at Eugénie’s request, has invited young Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire) to watch them cook. The girl moves quickly and performs every task with wide-eyed fascination.
Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel), the most celebrated chef in France, whisks through the kitchen to inspect their progress. He smiles at Eugénie as she gently massages the skin of a sturgeon before bathing it in sauce. The guests have arrived. She beckons Violette to begin with the apéritifs before serving the first course. Dodin drinks with his friends in the salon before settling at the dinner table for the delectable delights to come.
Juliette Binoche as Eugénie
Eugénie sits with Violette and Pauline in the kitchen as they enjoy the same fantastic meal. Dodin’s dear companions wonder why she never joins them. The beautiful Eugénie is happy remaining at her station. She takes great pride in their satisfaction. Dodin stares longingly at his cook for twenty years. He whispers if her door will be open for him that night. Eugénie’s coy reply stirs his longing for her. Dodin sighs with great anticipation. He asks again why won’t she marry him.
Loosely based on the novel by Marcel Rouff, The Taste of Things exquisitely sets the stage for an amorous escalation. Writer and director Trần Anh Hùng (The Scent of Green Papaya, Eternity), in perhaps one of the best opening scenes, spends nearly twenty minutes of his first act documenting Eugénie’s meticulous preparation and cooking. We learn that Dodin is widely regarded as the “Napoleon of gastronomy,” a title he categorically rejects and his friends playfully mock. Dodin accepts nothing less than perfection. But he’s not a strict or overbearing taskmaster. Eugénie has his complete confidence. They both instruct as attentive teachers, their goal being to pass on what they’ve learned to those worthy of instruction.
Trần’s intimate depiction of Eugénie and Dodin as lovers will take your breath away. Dodin’s slight hesitation at turning her door handle fills the screen with palpable romantic tension. Eugénie has long captured Dodin’s heart, but she stalwartly refuses to change the nature of their relationship. He is the chef. She’s his cook. Eugénie’s shared feelings and attraction to him mustn’t alter their undeniable chemistry in the kitchen. They’re too good together to risk collective brilliance. But her refusal to make their couple status official doesn’t offend Dodin. He becomes more determined to attain the greatest prize. Dodin cannot be complete without Eugenie at his side.
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Benoît Magimel as Dodin
Trần takes great care to frame his protagonists as respected pillars in their community. Dodin’s fame and expertise are shared with Eugénie. Their love affair isn’t a secret. The supporting ensemble recognizes them as an inseparable team who are equally responsible for success. Dodin’s pursuit of Eugénie over many years has made them both better in every regard. These scenes may be lost in the visual splendor of the cooking, but shouldn’t be understated. Eugénie walking through orchards, interacting with local farmers, and talking with Pauline’s parents affirm her respect and likability. She’s an exceptional woman and worthy of Dodin’s ardent desires.
The Taste of Things has superb camera work, editing, and lighting. The château is a confined setting, but Trần expertly uses overhead and tracking Steadicam shots to observe the characters in action. Mouths will water as Eugénie and Dodin plate dishes for Violette to present. The camera follows her up and down winding stairs as she brings out gourmet greatness. There are no corners cut in preparing, serving, and eating. The entire experience is captured by candlelight. You can’t reset when scene elements are perishable. This is no easy feat as the cast consumes the meals as an important part of the narrative’s progression. Trần then captures reaction shots as every amazing morsel touches the tongue and overwhelming satisfaction floods happy faces. His filmmaking acumen here is beyond extraordinary.
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The Taste of Things was France’s entry for the upcoming 96th Academy Awards. It boggles the mind utterly that it wasn’t nominated for Best International Feature or Trần as Best Director. This is an egregious oversight. The Taste of Things will resonate through cinematic history like a delicious aroma wafting in the air. Don’t watch on an empty stomach.
The Taste of Things, previously titled La Passion de Dodin Bouffant and The Pot-au-Feu, has French dialogue with English subtitles. The film is a production of Curiosa Films, Gaumont, France 2 Cinéma, and Umedia. It will be released theatrically in the United States on February 14th from IFC Films.