“Happiness is continuing to desire what we already have.”
Any film shot in France is almost required to provide a countless assortment of shots meant to show off just how beautiful the country is. This is especially true when it comes to films taking place in the French countryside where serene shots of trees, rivers, and meadows are expected to serve as aids in telling whatever story the film is presenting. Since that part of the world offers such gorgeous landscapes, the kind that’s just begging to be captured on camera, it’s easy to see why we expect this from such films. The Taste of Things, however, is one of the few films not to concern itself with making the French countryside seem picturesque. It instead leaves all of its sumptuous visual elements to the food shown, which quickly becomes the primary reason for watching the film in the first place.
In 19th century France, an accomplished chef named Eugenie (Juliette Binoche) has worked for 20 years in the kitchen of a gourmet named Dodin (Benoit Magimel). During their time together, the pair has developed a secret romance that has been fueled by their shared love of cooking and food. While Eugenie has turned down all of Dodin’s previous marriage proposals, the gourmet has refused to give up his love for the most important woman in his life.
Despite Binoche’s presence, the food is the real star of The Taste of Things. The film opens with Eugenie preparing an elaborate multi-course lunch for Dodin and his friends that is so detailed and lovingly captured by director Anh Hung Tran, that it pretty much takes up most of the film’s first 20 minutes. The reason the preparation of all the food in the extended beginning is so mesmerizing is that it so delicately shows us what an art form and craft cooking is, especially in late 1800s France. Among the many dishes Eugenie conjures up are puff pastries, fish drenched in a whole bottle of wine, an array of roasts, different kinds of potatoes, baked Alaska, and a pot-au-feu (a famous French beef stew). The care and pride that Eugenie shows throughout all of these moments is simply beautiful. Her meticulous approach to every dish she prepares is performed similarly to someone in military service or religious order in terms of concentration and dedication. Whether it aimed to or not, the film is the best example of showing a chef of Eugenie’s skill feels like a calling. Those who are drawn to such a path end up willfully and happily giving their lives to it.
With all of the glorious food moments on display, it’s almost a shame when the love story has to come into play, shaking the audience awake from their culinary fantasies. But The Taste of Things is ultimately a love story, one that touches on class and choice. It’s clear how food has dictated both Eugenie and Dodin as individuals and as a couple. Eugenie is seen as a woman who doesn’t know who she is unless she’s cooking, while Dodin’s attraction to her lies in the talent she possesses and her ability to create. Eugenie does have a love for Dodin, but her true love for all her grown-up life has been her art. Food and love have been linked in cinema plenty of times, but never this strongly. What’s so captivating about this romance is the way Eugenie shows Dodin her utmost love and devotion through the way she cooks. It’s not a novel theme, but it seldom ever comes across as romantic and genuine as it does here. The turn of Dodin starting to cook for Eugenie after a non-life-threatening illness forces her to get some rest only heightens the romance. It’s so unbelievably touching to see what the act of cooking for Eugenie symbolizes for Dodin as he repays her for what she’s given him for their many years together.
It would be fair to say that the film’s romance could use a little more nuance at its center. However, the actors alone do so much to show us that these two people share a rich history and that theirs is a genuine love affair. Binoche has never been more sublime as she perfectly embodies the heart and mind of a woman from the 1800s and makes her a wonder for her time. Magimel is the perfect scene partner for Binoche and the level of vulnerability he gives to Dodin only helps in making us be overtaken by his devotion to the woman he’s loved for so long.
I had always considered the term “food porn” to be just a piece of slang that people generally used to describe a food-heavy movie or TV show that wowed its audience with its culinary elements. According to Wikipedia, however, food porn is: “a glamourized visual presentation of cooking or eating in advertisements, infomercials, blogs, cooking shows, and other visual media.” The scene with Eugenie pinpointing the ingredients after tasting a sauce intercut with the sauce being made is one example of the film’s many great cinematic uses of food and human intimacy. Meanwhile, watching the actors seamlessly construct the dishes gives off so much unexpected visual pleasure, that it’s impossible not to be taken by the process. These and other moments signify that The Taste of Things is more than just food porn. It is an inspiring cinematic experience that will touch all who see it, regardless if they are a chef, a foodie, a Francophile, or a romantic. It’s indeed a special kind of cinema.