11 June 2024

The Taste of Things is a delicious culinary feast for the senses

| Rama Gaind
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movie still of a woman and a man cooking

Juliette Binoche as Eugenie and Benoit Magimel as Dodin in The Taste of Things. Photo: Supplied.

What George Bernard Shaw espoused about there being “… no sincerer love than the love of food” is enacted with joie de vivre that touches the culinary heart of The Taste of Things!

This French historical romantic drama written and directed by Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo) stars Juliette Binoche and Benoit Magimel. Hung is anything but delicate in his symbolism. As he points out: “Cinema needs to be very sensual, very physical.” The Taste of Things is a lot more than that!

The setting is 1885. Peerless cook Eugenie Chatagne (played by Binoche, The English Patient, Chocolat, High Life) has worked for the famous gourmet Dodin Bouffant (Magimel, Peaceful, Pacifiction, Thieves) for the past 20 years. As time went by, the practice of gastronomy and mutual admiration turned into a romantic bond. Their culinary creations astonish even the most esteemed chefs, yet Eugenie cherishes her independence and resists Dodin’s desire for marriage.

Their association gives rise to dishes, one more delicious than the next, that confound even the world’s most illustrious chefs. In a poignant gesture, Dodin strives to express his love through the intimate act of cooking a meal for her, a move that signifies a departure from his usual role in their relationship.

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The Taste of Things (originally titled The Pot-au-Feu) was selected as the French entry for Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards on 11 March this year. It is adapted from the 1924 novel by Swiss playwright, poet, journalist and historian Marcel Rouff titled The Life and Passion of Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet. The screenplay, adaptation and dialogues are by Hung, a Vietnamese-born French director, who preferred telling the story as a prequel to the novel.

“That gave me the freedom to imagine the relationship between Eugenie and Dodin Bouffant,” Hung said.

“And it was also an opportunity to explore something rare in the cinema: conjugality. And even rarer when it works. There is in this couple a togetherness and complicity unusual at the beginning of the 20th century.

”Yes, it is marvellous to see people their age, in their autumn years as Dodin would say, with a lust for life that I would describe as being classically French. No romance or burning passion, just something ordered and restrained in a calm relationship with the world and nature.

”I appreciate the douceur and measure found in French art and mentality.”

We learn a lot of history. Dodin often refers to Antonin Careme, Talleyrand’s chef, as his model and to Auguste Escoffier, who “makes us dream the future”. A precise idea is imparted of the succession of gastronomic geniuses in the period.

Food is the ingredient that binds us and while eating is a necessity, cooking is an art. From the opening frame, more than 30 minutes are devoted to the preparation of a huge feast, made primarily by Eugenie for Dodin and their dinner guests played by Emmanuel Salinger, Patrick d’Assumcao, Frederic Fisbach and Jan Hammenecker. They are fellow worshippers of fine food and drink. Turbot cooked in milk, loin of veal with braised lettuces, omelette norvegienne (aka Baked Alaska). These individual dishes (and more) create rapture on the faces of Dodin and his guests.

There is no such thing as too many cooks in this kitchen! Everyone works with precision, knowing exactly what is required of them. This scene is an astonishing feat. Watching them cook, obviously, results in salivating over the meal being prepared before us. There’s gratification when you watch the guests in the dining room taste the food, savouring every bite, without the need to say a word. Their pleasure is palpable.

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Each of these dishes is also relished by Eugenie, who prefers to eat in the kitchen with her two young female helpers, Galatea Bellugi as Violette and Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire as Pauline.

Lighting creates beautiful images through cinematography by Jonathan Ricquebourg. One of the most stunning creations in The Taste of Things is a seafood vol-au-vent, a large pastry shell filled with a thick sauce of crayfish and vegetables. Three-Michelin-star chef Pierre Gagnaire, who served as culinary director on the film, said the image of it being sliced for the guests was “absolute beauty” and “crazy sensuality”.

Everything is lovingly cooked — to perfection — and eaten with gastronomic reverence. Amazing food, brilliant acting, a sensual ode to haute cuisine!

The Taste of Things, directed by Tran Anh Hung, Rialto Distribution

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