The Taste of Things

There is a long tradition of films about food, where the detailed preparation and the effort in the kitchen becomes just as important as the drama outside of it. Kore-eda’s Still Walking, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s Big Night, Itami’s Tampopo. Tran Ahn Hung’s The Taste of Things is a film in that mold, though the director’s delicate treatment of the material sets it apart. The film takes place in France in 1885, where the art of cooking was just suddenly rising in sophistication, adapting to technologies that were allowing adventurous minds to become artists with their dishes. The Taste of Things is a film fascinated by culinary creation; everything from the labor-intensive composition to the intricate construction is documented with an admiring eye. This is the definitive film you should never watch on an empty stomach.

Benoit Magimel plays Dodin Bouffant, a renowned gourmet whose become known as the “Napoleon of the culinary arts”. It’s a title he doesn’t much care for. His interests lie not with fame but with food. His friends and fellow connoisseurs frequent his home where he presents exquisite meals that always look and taste phenomenal. Dodin’s refined palette is perhaps the best in the world, and his creativity with a menu has garnered him worldwide notoration, but even he is quick to admit that the key to his success is his professional partnership with his chef, Eugenie (Juliette Binoche). Dodin comes up with the recipes but it’s Eugenie who makes them a reality. The two have worked together for over twenty years. Dodin is desperate to marry her, but she frequently rebuffs him. Why give up what little freedom she has for a life that’s not much more different than what she’s already got?

Hung’s film is about passion and the way it shows itself in both the things we make and the things we love. Dodin’s passion for Eugenie is inseparable from his adoration of her cooking, and their mutual affection is bonded by creative collaboration. Eugenie’s instinct against Dodin’s frequent proposals is sound in that there is very little they could do with one another that is more romantic than the dishes they create. Of course, Dodin’s longing is not a shallow one. Yes, Eugenie is a great beauty, but his love is formed by decades of understanding and, more than anything, an appreciation of her unparalleled skill and how it’s contributed to his life. Never does Dodin try to absorb credit where it’s not due. The Nineteenth Century setting insists that a woman could never be judged a great chef, but that doesn’t mean that Dodin doesn’t know who the real artist is between the two of them.

In this way, The Taste of Things may be the most romantic film I’ve seen in a very long time. A less confident film would have planted more contrived barriers between the two lovers, resentments would have risen between them or their love may have succumbed to infighting or competition. Hung, who also wrote the script, knows what is the most cinematic here: it’s not only the food, but the way that food speaks volumes toward their commitment to one another. There is one thing: Eugenie has started to become afflicted with sudden fainting spells, a condition she can hardly explain and which she barely acknowledges. Her episodes send Dodin into a panic, as he scurries to find someone, anyone who can diagnose her illness. Despite it all, Eugenie stays devoted to the kitchen, even recruiting a young girl, Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), to become an apprentice.

Hung won the Best Director award at Cannes last year for this film, back when it was supposed to be called The Pot-au-Feu (the shift to the more mundane Taste of Things feels a bit like a missed opportunity). Hung’s incredible work – his stunning grace behind the camera and fantastic attention to detail – is both a love letter to great cuisine as well as a studied exploration of the complexity of the human condition. The Vietnam-born French director works with great confidence, balancing the wonderful contributions he gets from cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg, production designer Toma Bequeni, and costume designer Tran Nu Yen Khe (who is also his wife). Not since Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, has a period piece been made that is so exquisitely crafted while also feeling lived-in and authentic.

If you consider the combination of artistic credibility and crossover commercial appeal, Juliette Binoche is probably the most accomplished French actor of her generation. Benoit Magimel’s superlative reputation has resided almost exclusively within his home country of France. The two performers, who both made a reputation for intensity and virility in their earlier work, play in a minor key here. The romance is quaint and modest, and Hung is clever in the way he fluctuates the power dynamics between them. Dodin is completely bewitched, but at the end of the day, he is still her employer. Binoche’s Eugenie is enigmatic, coy about her illness and quick to deflect declarations of her brilliance. Magimel’s Dodin is equal parts pretentious and romantic, playing the gourmet who would be completely insufferable if it weren’t for the great love of his life.

The film is said to be an adaptation of a famous 1920’s literary character created by the author Marcel Rouff. French cinema, so often defined for decades by its striking, analytical approach, is seldom as lush and tender as this. It makes sense that France would choose to submit this film as its Best International Feature Oscar submission, over the Palme D’or-winning Anatomy of a Fall, with its romantic aesthetic enhancing the beauty of everything within it. In hindsight, with Anatomy becoming an Oscar triumph and Taste of Things getting overlooked, the decision can be perceived as incorrect, but that doesn’t mean Hung’s film is any less special. Hung bypasses sentimentality, keeping the pace workmanlike, with a script that has the all-too-rare gift of understanding the harsher realities of its characters and setting. It’s the food that rises above the limitations of 1885 France, lives on past our greatest loves, and floats off into immortality.


Written for the Screen and Directed by Tran Ahn Hung