The most romantic movie of 2023 is coming to Boston area theaters just in time for Valentine’s Day. Winner of the best director prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Trần Anh Hùng’s “The Taste of Things” is a story of true love and fine cuisine, if sometimes not necessarily in that order. It’s a sneakily substantive picture about fleeting pleasures to be savored in the moment, before they’re gone forever. Trần’s film is a conscious throwback to the tradition of arthouse blockbusters like “Babette’s Feast” and “Like Water for Chocolate” that used to hang around in theaters for months on end, leaving audiences enraptured by their sensual, lovingly detailed depictions of meal preparation. (I’m fascinated by how much people love to watch other people cook, even when we can’t eat the results.) “The Taste of Things” is a sumptuous visual experience — you’ve never seen food photographed like this before —– following two lovers from the kitchen to the bedroom. But the kitchen is where the action happens.
An incandescent Juliette Binoche stars as the mysterious Eugénie, personal chef to Benoît Magimel’s Monsieur Dodin Bouffant, a gourmand of such exquisite and exacting tastes he’s known in high society circles as “the Napoleon of gastronomy.” Dodin hosts masterful, multi-course meals for a coterie of similarly inclined gentlemen, and after dinner they all puff on their pipes and make pronouncements like “in Escoffier one sees the future.” The year is 1889, and nobody visiting Dodin’s handsome country estate appears to have a care in the world beyond what’s on their plates. So all-encompassing is their obsession that when one of the diners mentions Balzac, he’s not talking about the writer, but rather a chef at the Grand Hotel.
Eugénie and Dodin have been cooking together for more than 20 years. The film’s first 35 minutes are given over to an elaborately choreographed marathon meal preparation that Trần and cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg shoot like a ballet. We marvel at the grace and physical chemistry of Binoche and Magimel as they maneuver around the close confines of the kitchen, seeming to share an almost telepathic communication when they cook. (Old flames off-camera, the performers had a daughter together in 1999, which presumably accounts for their exceptional comfort and ease together onscreen.)
Sometimes late at night, Dodin knocks on Eugénie’s bedroom door. Sometimes she invites him in. He’s been begging her to marry him for years, but she politely rejects his proposals. Eugénie rather likes the fact that she has a bedroom door of her own. And besides, she considers herself a cook, not a wife. We never do see Dobin and Eugénie make love, but after that opening sequence, it feels like we already have. The two recently started to mentor a pint-sized protégé named Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), a child who has such a sophisticated palate she can list all 30 ingredients in a soup after tasting a single bowl. Alas, there’s also the matter of Eugénie’s unexplained fainting spells, which cause Binoche to swoon like a doomed starlet in a 1920s silent movie.
It's one of those quirky accidents of distribution that “The Taste of Things” is opening locally less than a week after Frederick Wiseman’s “Menus-Plaisirs – Los Troisgros,” as if fancy French cuisine has commandeered the area’s screens. (It’s a great month at the movies for anyone who wants to watch hours on end of culinary expertise, if a slightly tougher time for those of us who think movie critics who use food metaphors should be 86’d.) Yet the differences between the films are instructive. In the Wiseman film, food preparation is presented as strictly professional, a noble and difficult skill that’s an end unto itself. Whereas in “The Taste of Things,” cooking is an act of devotion, expressing what words cannot. Especially after Eugénie falls ill, the care Dobin takes in making meals for her is the purest way he can show how he really feels.
It’s telling that the director dedicated “The Taste of Things” to his wife Trần Nữ Yên Khê, who starred in his first feature, 1994’s “The Scent of Green Papaya,” and has worked alongside him on his films for the past three decades. (She served as art director and costume designer on this one.) The characters of Dodin and Eugénie are Trần’s tribute to the idea that a couple can collaborate creatively together over a long period of time. Most love stories are about pursuit. “The Taste of Things” is a more mature romance about contentment and appreciating what you have. Because nothing lasts forever, not even happily ever after.
“The Taste of Things” is now in theaters.