Tuesday, May 21, 2024

‘The Taste of Things’ Is a Sensual Ode to Food and Love

It is around mid-morning on a day in 1889, and just as she’s ladling pools of cloudy stock over fish, Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) loses her balance. She and her two young helpers in this French countryside kitchen have spent hours peeling cherry-red crayfish and roasting rosy loins of veal for her boss of 20 years, a gourmand named Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel), and his circle of male friends. Some call Dodin the “Napoleon of culinary arts,” a sobriquet that makes him bristle. He knows that Eugénie, his cook, is the motor of his genius.

Her labor does not go unrecognized, for everyone can see that theirs is a dance of equals: He usually conceptualizes menus while she executes them, unerringly. And Eugénie’s skill is supreme. Her baked Alaska, with its scorched peaks of meringue, is so potent that it can make the people who eat it almost cry. The problem, as her spell of incognizance indicates, is that Eugénie is ill.

Eugénie’s lapse arrives about 20 minutes into the nearly half-hour-long introductory scene of the Vietnamese-born director Trần Anh Hùng’s The Taste of Things. The French-language film hits theaters in Los Angeles and New York today for a weeklong awards-qualifying run — it is France’s official entry to the Best International Feature Film category at the 2024 Academy Awards — before a wide release in February. Based on a 1924 novel by the Swiss author ​Marcel Rouff, the film first turned heads at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Hùng won the Best Director award. It’s not difficult to see why: This first, show-stopping sequence alone, which takes place mostly in the kitchen, suggests a craftsman working at the top of his form. Yet the film struggles to sustain the promise of that hypnotic opening set piece.

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The procession of images at the start of The Taste of Things might recall the culinary pageantry offered by films like Tampopo (1985), Babette’s Feast (1987), and Big Night (1996), which have all gained reputations as quintessential food films. The Taste of Things, by virtue of that first scene, might seem like it’s jostling for a place in that vaunted canon. (This isn’t Hùng’s first use of food as a narrative tool, either: his sterling 1993 debut feature The Scent of Green Papaya has sometimes appeared in such discussions of seminal food movies.) But what The Taste of Things lacks, especially compared to those titles, is a gratifying emotional arc to accompany its gastronomic spectacle.

As the film progresses, the viewer learns that Eugénie is indeed afflicted with an unspecified fatal malady. Still, she cooks, though her creative faculties are tarnished by the monster coursing through her body: she can barely remain standing in the kitchen, her natural domain. As Eugénie fades, the bond between boss and employee further tightens. He sometimes watches her bathe, though they sleep in separate rooms. They are biding time before they resolve to marry, something that Eugénie, valuing her independence, had long resisted. In a gesture meant to woo her, Dodin cooks her an elaborate dinner one night, serving her oysters, chicken, and champagne pulled from a shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean. He seems to treat the meal as if it might be her last.

Eugénie’s illness gives the film its faint heartbeat, and Hùng treads delicately. The Taste of Things operates in a low key, and building dramatic stakes does not seem to be Hùng’s motivating aim. Rather, he tries to express the unique rapture of being fed by someone you love, who knows your tastes as well as you yourself do.

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The issue, then, arises with Hùng’s miscalibration of the film’s competing elements. His sensualism fares better with food than with his characters. In The Taste of Things’ finest moments — which take place in the kitchen — Hùng seems to discover a new language for capturing gustatory pleasure through film. His approach is so tactile that the sight of pearly caviar beads seems downright carnal. You can smell the gum of rendering bacon fat, the sweat of butter being strained into a pot.

But this feast of imagery eventually begins to feel more indulgent than purposeful. Hùng paces his 135-minute-long film so languidly that its engine sputters. He tests the viewer’s investment in his two protagonists and buries their needs beneath the bloat of excess. He tries to realize the cinematic potential for using food as a conduit for conditions of the soul — joy, longing, every feeling that sits in between — but his ability to do so ultimately shows its limits.

Hùng’s aesthetic preoccupations come at the expense of keeping the interior lives of these characters at the fore. This is a real shame, considering the very fine work of his two leads (they were once romantic partners off-screen, and their connection remains palpable). Binoche is characteristically effervescent, and she brings great dignity and pathos to this role of a woman who is cooking against time. Her carriage is wraithlike, implying she might break at any moment, but she also conveys resolve. Magimel matches her with every beat, switching registers on a dime. He is tender when the occasion calls for it and a spark plug of fury in others, particularly when Eugénie’s absence becomes an imminent reality, making clear that no cook will ever be able to best her brilliance in his mind.

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But both performers are soldiering through a film that seems to be colluding against them. When the inevitable tragedy of Eugénie’s sickness strikes, the event registers more feebly than it should. For a film ostensibly predicated on demonstrating the spiritual transcendence of cooking for — and being fed by — the person you love, The Taste of Things commits the most cardinal sin of all: It leaves you hungering for more.

Mayukh Sen is the author of Taste Makers (2021) and a forthcoming biography of the actress Merle Oberon. He has received a James Beard Award for his food writing, and his work has been anthologized in three editions of The Best American Food Writing.

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