Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 23rd, 2023
The Taste of Things (Trần Anh Hùng, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
The Vietnamese-French director Trần Anh Hùng returns to the screen after a seven-year hiatus with The Taste of Things (in French, “La passion de Dodin Bouffant”), for which he also wrote the screenplay. The central character, Dodin Bouffant, is inspired by Marcel Rouff’s 1924 book The Passionate Epicure. Set in 1885, the movie delves into the art and pleasure of French cooking with a seemingly boundless appetite that only falters when tragedy strikes. Until then, the fine courses never stop.
Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel, Revoir Paris) is a well-to-do landowner and gourmet (and excellent cook) who has had in his employ for 20 years a chef of incomparable skill, Eugénie (Juliette Binoche, Non-Fiction). After all this time, she has become far more than just his “cuisinière,” but also his lover and the person he most admires and adores. Though Dodin has long wanted to marry Eugénie, she worries that joining him in matrimony would remove the charm of their relationship. Dodin hopes to wear down her resolve one day, even if they are, as he puts it, in “the autumn of their lives.”
The movie takes its time, languorously winding its way through a series of elaborate cooking (and eating) sequences. In a delightful opening scene, captured via cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg’s marvelous moving camera, we watch Dodin and Eugénie prepare a meal for guests as yet unseen, the two working together in easy harmony, aided by a younger servant, Violette (Galatéa Bellugi, Amanda), and her niece, Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire, making her screen debut). An unbridled joy in the wonders of food fills the air, made even more delicious by the older folks’ discovery that Pauline has a potentially superlative palate. They dream of making her an apprentice to Eugénie.
From there, we travel through a narrative filled with scrumptious asides, seemingly (at least initially) without much conflict or drama. Trần (Norwegian Wood) has much up his cinematic sleeve, hidden in the folds of Eugénie’s apron. He’s here to explore what it means to feel deeply and live fully, no matter what misfortunes may arrive. As Dodin, quoting Saint Augustine, says towards the end, “happiness is desiring that which we already have.” Of course, if what you have is exquisite, all the better.
But sadly, the idyll of the film’s first half cannot last, courtesy of a mysterious illness that gets in the way. After that malady runs its inevitable course, what remains are the memories, there to help the living recover from their loss. As such, this gentle slow burn of a movie proves much more than a mere compendium of recipes, even if sometimes its meandering ways can frustrate our hunger for story. The Taste of Things is here to remind us to savor every moment that comes our way, lest it be our last. Though not all portions are equally nourishing, there is bliss in every dish.
[The Taste of Things—also known, outside of North America, as The Pot-au-Feu—premiered at the Cannes Film Festival (where Trần won the Best Director prize). I am reviewing it out of the 2023 Middleburg Film Festival.]