The Taste of Things Is a Tragic Love Story of Sensory Delights

Movies Reviews new york film festival 2023
The Taste of Things Is a Tragic Love Story of Sensory Delights

To release The Taste of Things (titled The Pot-au-Feu in France) now feels especially apt, as video-based social media is awash in short films which tickle the senses and calm the mind: The newfangled form of stress therapy known as ASMR. But while ASMR is most heavily associated with the pleasures of sound, it would be nothing without the aesthetics. The way a cake spatula smooths a dollop of buttery frosting; the way egg noodles gleam under a coating of soy sauce. It might sound reductive to compare Vietnamese-French director Trần Anh Hùng’s lyrical work with a social media fad, but there is now an entire micro-industry dedicated to the way human beings have always lusted after the sensual impressions of food, an idea which is as much in conversation within The Taste of Things as that of the romance between its two leads. 

If there were no plot at all, The Taste of Things could still very easily coast on the visual and auditory pleasures of its subject: The culinary arts, to which Trần’s camera and microphone dedicate sumptuous displays of rich textures and decadent sizzles of in-process cookery, much of it spearheaded by veteran kitchen cook Eugénie (Juliette Binoche). Taking place in late 19th century France at the estate of the so-called “Napoleon of Culinary Arts” Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel), The Taste of Things focuses on its residents. Dodin is an esteemed restaurant owner who has employed, and loved, Eugénie for two decades. Though Eugénie is his cook, the two of them work side by side; Dodin the mastermind, Eugénie the hands-on artist, bringing Dodin’s recipes to life. For Dodin and Eugénie, cooking is an erotic, romantic, intimate act. After the first meal of the film is enjoyed by Dodin and some colleagues, they all bemoan Eugénie’s welcome yet absent company at their dinner. Eugénie assures them she is speaking to them through her food.

The meandering, loose plot of The Taste of Things concerns the symbiotic relationship between Eugénie and Dodin, as well as the burgeoning skills of their would-be protégé Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), a young girl who, alongside the older Violette (Galatea Bellugi), assists Eugénie in the kitchen and exhibits an astonishing gift for gastronomy. While Eugénie prepares a lavish spread for Dodin and his friends, she momentarily loses herself, seemingly to the understandable exhaustion that comes with dancing and careening through a hot kitchen. DP Jonathan Ricquebourg glides the camera around Eugénie and co., giving the banquet preparation a sense of precise choreography akin to ballet, all the way to the angle at which a wooden spoon slips through a pan of rich, creamy sauce. But it is more than just the fatigue of cooking a gratifying meal that ails Eugénie, and perhaps Dodin can sense that time is running out on his desire to finally marry the free-spirited woman who has spent years reciprocating his love and evading commitment.

While Dodin quietly concerns himself over Eugénie’s health, he is invited to dine with the Prince of Eurasia who has apparent designs to one-up the famed culinary artist. The prince serves Dodin and his four friends a grand, multi-course meal which ends up spanning eight hours. Unimpressed with the gregariousness of the display and the ultimate emptiness of the content, Dodin plans to serve the prince his own menu prizing quality over quantity, with his right-hand woman Eugénie working her magic in the kitchen on every dish. But Eugénie’s fainting spells become more frequent. With doctors unable to determine what is wrong, Dodin’s menu is rapidly plunged into disarray.

Throughout the narrative’s drama, the chemistry between Binoche and Magimel is as palpable as the food that their characters prepare together. And while the film remains free of explicit sex or nudity (though, one scene cheekily parallels Binoche’s nude silhouette with the curvature of a poached pear), the insinuations and implications carried by the appearance, sound and intent behind the cooking are far more sensuous. In particular, a scene in which Binoche’s bath is interrupted, happily, by Dodin—Eugénie has kept her door unlocked at night for Dodin’s entrance for many years now—cannot match the way Eugénie drains an oyster shell assembled for her lovingly and painstakingly by Dodin. The MVP of The Taste of Things is the sound department, which crafts a world of sensory delights that don’t even exist in reality. But just as the sounds of ASMR are not complete without visuals, so too are the cooking scenes of The Taste of Things contingent on the camera’s placement on hands, tools and the food itself. Trần’s high-contrast lighting makes every dish so tactile that your gut will be begging you for mercy. 

The Taste of Things is abundantly, if maybe overwhelmingly, accessible; it’s not particularly challenging to watch a film that’s quite literally as gratifying as a home-cooked meal. The Taste of Things is, in basic terms, a very nice and sweet movie, although Dodin’s grief as the paramours suffer tragedy in their autumn years is emotionally punishing. But there’s not necessarily anything wrong with a movie being “very nice and sweet,” especially one as lovingly crafted as this. And there’s something so much more appealing about food made generations ago, isn’t there? An assumed purity of ingredients, the rustic, hand-crafted look of the tools, and the knowledge that, likely, that food was much more appetizing, as well as crucially free of the man-made chemicals which now poison us daily. Was the love purer then, as well? Hard to say, but the feeling of shared passion between two people, both for one another and for the art that drives and binds them, is certainly timeless—if now swimming interminably with microplastics.

Director: Trần Anh Hùng
Writer: Trần Anh Hùng
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Pierre Gagnaire, Jan Hammenecker
Release Date: October 5, 2023 (New York Film Festival)

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.

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