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The Taste of Things review - a gentle love letter to haute cuisine | reviews, news & interviews

The Taste of Things review - a gentle love letter to haute cuisine

The Taste of Things review - a gentle love letter to haute cuisine

Anh Hung Tran's Cannes winner delicately crafts the contours of passion

Perfectly pitched: Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire as Pauline, Benoît Magimel as Didon and Juliette Binoche as EugénieIFC Films

Awarded the best director prize at Cannes last year, Anh Hung Tran has served up cinema’s latest hymn to gastronomy, The Taste of Things. Tasting (and smelling) what’s on the screen is obviously impossible, but even so Tran provides as total a sensory experience as a film can of the religion of haute cuisine and its acolytes. 

The piece is delicately beautiful on many levels. Visually, it's a panorama of late 19th century genteel country living, in a house with a vast kitchen garden where people uproot celeriac plants and stick them in wooden trugs, lunch al fresco at a madly long table straight out of Renoir, eat food prepared with an expensive copper batterie de cuisine straight out of E Dehillerin’s Parisian temple to kitchenware.

This country house is owned by Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel, pictured below left), the gourmet whose “passion” is in the title of the 1927 novel by Marcel Rouff that loosely inspired the film. Presumed to be a version of the great gastronome Brillat-Savarin, Dodin has employed a female chef, Eugénie (Juliette Binoche), for the past 20 years to transform his recipes into magical eating experiences. 

There is real beauty, too, in the preparation of the food. We watch as Eugenie and her young helper, Violette, create a six-course lunch for Dodin’s suite of local worthies (all men), performing an almost silent ballet of crisscrossing steps and manoeuvres, broken only by short verbal instructions as the ingredients evolve from chopping board to triumphant assemblage. (There is no music on the film’s soundtrack, just Bellini’s “Casta diva" over the opening credits, and Chopin over the closing ones.) This is fine dining, but somehow, thanks to the passion with which it is prepared, it's an honest ritual, without frippery or any trace of swank. When Dodin and his suite are invited to dine with a visiting Prince of Eurasia, the mad extravagance of the menu the royal chef proposes is almost sickening to listen to by comparison: “a parade”, Dodin calls it.

But there is a frisson of disquiet about Dodin’s ménage, which his guests openly air when Eugénie comes in to be thanked at the end of the meal. Why doesn’t she ever join them at the table? We sense she wouldn’t want to, even if it were practical for her to leave the kitchen. She is an independent-minded woman who doesn’t want to marry Dodin, despite his frequent proposals. They are irregular bedfellows, he asking permission to visit her room, she coquettishly suggesting he will have to find out whether her door is locked (mostly, it isn’t). But she loves her freedom to say no as much as she seems to love him.

Benoît Magimel in The Taste of ThingsDodin, it’s clear, lives for food – its sourcing, designing, preparing. Does he love Eugénie for her similar passion, and not least for her ability to enhance his own recipes? Their love story is a gentle, autumnal one, though overwhelming to Dodin. (It gains extra piquancy from the fact that Binoche and Magimel were partners for five years two decades ago and have a daughter together.) 

As a subplot we also follow the story of Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), the little niece of Violette, who comes to help her in the kitchen and soon shows she is a budding gourmet herself. In one lovely scene she tastes a sauce and then rightly identifies to Dodin a long list of all but three of the ingredients in it.

There is a slim plot development revolving around the return invitation to the Prince. Dodin creates the simplest of menus for it, with a pot-au-feu as its centrepiece – the kind of food, he protests, when Eugénie suggests it’s an audacious dish to serve to a prince, that ordinary French families eat all the time. He demonstrates its homespun beauty by cooking it for Eugénie, a reversal of their usual roles. 

This limning of what constitutes true gastronomy is as close as the script gets to a theme. Dodin and his suite love to discuss and philosophise about the gastronomic ideas of Carême (the illustrious past) and Escoffier (the future) of haute cuisine. We see that they appreciate a consommé as much as an omelette à la norvégienne (aka Baked Alaska: Didon has a hand-churned ice-cream maker in his cellar). But they are committed foodies, both admirable and slightly daft, as when they make a pilgrimage to eat the first ortolans of the season, stuffing down several each with their heads hidden under voluminous napkins.

It’s Eugénie’s less intellectualised, more practical approach to food, which she sees as her way of conversing with the world, that seems to get Tran’s vote. His camera is like Pauline, fascinated by her deft handling of the ingredients (Binoche and Magimel were trained to do all their own cooking): the crayfish, the large turbot that almost exactly fits its rhomboid-shaped copper poacher, the giant vol au vent – a Carême invention, Eugénie tells Pauline – that she fills with vegetables in a creamy velouté. She dismisses Pauline’s suggestion that she is an artist, but Tran doesn’t.

Benoit Magimel and Juliette Binoche in The Taste of ThingsDodin’s role is a little more ambiguous, both master and servant to his passion. At the meal for his suite, he arrives to provide the seigneurial touch of creating the quenelles for Eugénie to simmer in the stock she has prepared, but he is beholden to her skills. She is a chef, he is proud to say, who can create a soup like a sonata, every note distinct. Their relationship is fluid, moving along a spectrum from friendship and comradely collaboration to sexual love and back again. 

Tran suggests the meshing of these various strands in adjoining scenes. When Dodin cooks for Eugénie, he makes a confection with a poached pear at its heart; in the next shot, later that night, when he opens her bedroom door, he finds her turned away from him, naked, her back and buttocks echoing the contours of the pear. 

The performances are perfectly pitched. Binoche maintains an unruffled serenity throughout, especially charming when she’s teasing Dodin. Magimel emerges from the film in fine form, an actor with a volatile past who here seems to have achieved a welcome mellowness; his love for Eugénie is very touching. It’s a small, agreeably idiosyncratic film, beautifully crafted.

Tran's camera is fascinated with Eugénie's deft handling of the ingredients

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Comments

I think it would be a fault to leave the remark that it is Chopin that is played in the closing credits.  It is in fact Massenet's most beautiful Meditation from Thaïs. It is indeed the perfect piece of music to accompany the ending moments of this symbolic movie where everything has a meaning. What better music than a 'Meditation' to reflect on the feast of a movie that one has just watched ...savoured even. 

No, the critic is right. I looked in vain for a mention of it in the end credits, as I couldn't remember whether it was a Prelude or an Étude, or a Nocturne - probably the last of these - but it was definitely Chopin. .And the Massenet isn't a piece for solo piano, but an interlude in an opera played by solo violin and orchestra.

The piece has been adapted for solo piano - as I have done when playing Massenet's glorious Meditation. 

No, the reviewer is correct, it was definitely Chopin when I saw the film today. Apart from anything else, the Massenet isn't a piece for solo piano.

Apologies to Fiona. I now think she's right, and I was thrown by the fact that the music was played on solo piano. That would explain why I couldn't put my finger on which piece of Chopin it was.

Viewed this magnificent film today for the second time. Photographed the music credit. It's this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMTBGa-JTtE

 

I was wondering if anyone else better understood what Eugenie was saying when she was telling Didon about how she dreamt of him coming to her room but that the door actually opened two different times...?

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