Do not see The Taste of Things on an empty stomach. It’s a French film about gourmet French cuisine, magnificently photographed and meticulously prepared for both the camera and the palate, and raised to the status of art as only the French can. Somewhere from within the elegant country inn that serves as its exquisite restaurant setting in the late 19th century, a serious romantic drama emerges, but it’s really a movie that lives up to its title. If you haven’t eaten all day before you see the wondrous splendors that come out of its kitchen, you might forget about the movie, overcome by an obsession to taste things, too.
THE TASTE OF THINGS ★★★ (3.5/4 stars)
Under the delicate expertise and guidance of Vietnamese writer-director Tran Anh Hung, lovely Oscar winner Juliette Binoche plays Eugenie, a head cook who has worked for 20 years by the side (and in the bed) of gourmet chef Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel). Megimel is the veteran French character actor who, in real life, was Binoche’s soulmate and celebrated lover for decades, and their rapport in the film is tangible. Eugenie shares Dodin’s passion for food and cooking but refuses to marry him, preferring the independence of an unattached single. They’re both cooks and such close friends that they provide an instantaneous rapport as co-stars that makes words seem unnecessary. The film had its own culinary director, Pierre Gagnaire, who insisted one of the central themes of the film be the art and passion of gastronomy, and he personally supervised the perfection of every meal on the menu as it was prepared for every scene. The result is a film as delicious and awesome as the extraordinary dishes that take center stage. Scenes are designed to be tasted, chewed, savored. A simple omelet becomes a magical experience, and sharing the screen while preparing the ingredients brings the Binoche-Megimel team to life as no other film could. Their private moments are captured with the kind of intimacy regular actors might never learn to duplicate. Again, watching the focused attention with which they blend the crisp makings for a salad from their garden, exquisitely saute a fish, or painstakingly baste a loin of pork and boil fresh crayfish is as suspenseful as any crime scene in a darker film. There are no vegans here.
Co-starring with carrots, mushrooms, cherished wines for each course, and an endless supply of crème fraiche, Juliette Binoche is as charming and focused as she was in Chocolat, turning The Taste of Things into a sumptuous symphony with magical, mood-changing movements, baked in the same oven with such classic food films as the Oscar-winning Babette’s Feast and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night. The actors are wonderful, and the film has texture and taste, like the food. In the final tally, my only reservation is that the movie is too languid, too slow, and nothing much ever happens outside of the kitchen. I don’t mind a film about food that is primarily about nothing else, but I would have appreciated a soupcon of plot. In The Taste of Things, when every character is not eating, they’re talking about it—judging it, growing it, reciting recipes, planning menus, making a Baked Alaska look like a Technicolor masterpiece. Still, it’s fresh, mouth-watering, and, in my opinion, the best foreign film of the year.