One of the best films that played at the Chicago International Film Festival this year was the French feature THE TASTE OF THINGS, which hasn’t even opened in its native country yet. That will occur come November 8 when it premieres in Paris under the title LA PASSION DE DODIN BOUFFANT. The film has been buzzed about for months, ever since it caused a sensation at Cannes back in May winning its writer/director Tran Anh Hung the Best Director prize. Suffice it to say, THE TASTE OF THINGS was received at the CIFF with rapturous enthusiasm as well. My hunch is that the film chosen as France’s entry for the Oscar’s Best International Feature competition will prevail as it stirs the heart and senses so extraordinarily. (I’m not sure when it will open wide in the USA, but keep your eyes peeled for it.)
The film is a dual love story about the adoration of food as well as the incredible bond that exists between the two leads characters in the story – a couple of elite French cooks in 1885. The couple is played by two of France’s best actors, Juliette Binoche and Beniot Magimel, and they give amazing performances as their characters and convincing us they’re gourmet cooks too. (One wonders just how long they trained to appear so professional looking in the kitchen.) But more than a love story about food and two cooks, the movie is an incredibly unique cinematic experience; one that takes its sweet time, a long time in some instances, and defies many conventional tropes of editing, scoring and more.
For starters, there is no musical underscore. Instead, sound design – birds chirping in the yard, pans clattering in the kitchen, lovers exchanging words – this is where the film’s musicality is. Then there is the editing which lops off scenes left and right, sometimes jumping weeks and months ahead in its storytelling even, all to keep us on our toes. Some scenes are short, some go on and on. Indeed, some scene lengths are so long, they break almost every convention of modern screen editing. Why, the very first big scene in the film goes on for a stunning 20-minutes and it’s an absolute dazzler.
That opener showcases the elaborate and detailed preparation of a single dinner for French VIPs and we see every bit of what goes into making such a gourmet meal. Together with the cooks in the kitchen, we are a fly on the wall, observing them ready everything from sauces to proteins to garnishes. The menu being prepared feels almost too vast to be believed for one sitting – roasted vegetables, various potatoes, a quiche, greens, beets, gourds, meat pies, fish, fowl, Beef Bourguinon, custards, gravies, even Baked Alaska for dessert. Overseeing all of it is the lord of the manor and gourmand Dodin Bouffant (Magimel), though most of the work is done by his beloved cook and fellow expert in the culinary arts, the wise and knowing Eugenie (Binoche).
Together with their assistant Violette (Galatea Bellugi), and a 12-year-old ‘apprentice’ named Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire, more on her later), the four cut, quarter, slice, dice, roast, simmer, and dress dozens of dishes while the camera swirls all around them. At times, the camerawork by cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourgh feels less like photography and more like a delicious aroma circling the players, wafting up from the dishes they’re creating. It is truly intoxicating cinema and I I think Hung won that Cannes award for such an audacious opener, a scene that casts its spell and takes its own sweet time.
The meal is for the elite colleagues of Dodin, played by Emmanuel Salinger, Patrick d’Assumcao, Jan Hammenecker, and Frederick Fisbach, and as they engage and gorge, we eat and drink it all in with our eyes too. And they will visit numerous times for more elaborate meals and you may very well feel the itch to run to the concession stand, but no buttered popcorn can compete with the meals your eyes will be having watching this magical movie.
From there, the film explores the complicated world of food as well as the complex coupling of Dodin and Eugenie. She’s been his cook for 20 years and the two are not only colleagues, but best friends, each other’s muse, and occasionally, lovers too. Dodin regularly asks for her hand in marriage but she always turns him down as she loves her freedom and their equality in the kitchen. Being a French subservient wife is no role for someone as headstrong and feisty as Eugenie anyway, and as played by the slyly feisty Binoche, you understand why she’s so desirable but also a challenge.
Eugenie’s pride and progressiveness makes for a very modern love story here, even with its period backdrop. The romance is all the more unique and refreshing too considering Binoche is 59 and Magimel is 49. Stir in the fact that these two French superstars were once involved together in real life and it only adds more depth to their onscreen coupling. And the way they play off each other is so intimate, it feels entirely real. At one point in the film, Dodin cooks a meal for Eugenie and watching him serve all the courses to her makes for one of the most romantic and palpable scenes ever on film.
The rest of the cast is just as sublime, particularly Chagneau-Ravoire. One early scene in the films calls for Pauline to name all the ingredients that Dodin has mixed into one of his sauces. She rattles them off, dozens of spices and whatnot, without batting an eye. Such scenes are both adorable and cheeky, having fun with how serious these characters take food.
If the movie AMELIE was a Valentine to France back in 2001, this is one big, delectable box of chocolates. It’s incredibly French, of course, but it’s also adroitly universal too. THE TASTE OF THINGS tells a beautiful human story about love, age, and living every day as avidly as we can, ensuring we get our fill. Quite simply, this film is a feast.