If there’s one thing the French know, it’s romance. The images evoked through decades and centuries of association between the two are basically innumerable. Equating France and love isn’t so much a trope as it is a part of our cultural lexicon, understood as just the way things are until we’re presented with an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary.
Possibly second on that list of subjects where the country is an unrivaled pioneer is cuisine. Hell, the word itself is literally French for “kitchen.” As the world has grown smaller, the influence of French cooking, as both a means of nutrition and of sheer pleasure has only spread, with generation after generation discovering the joys of the form.
So, naturally, a French film about romance and food was sure to be superb, right? Well, it depends on who you ask. Trần Anh Hùng’s The Taste of Things is a gorgeous love story anchored by two terrific performances, and it’s one of the more enchanting movies of the year. However, just like with Les Misérables in 2019, there was something of a vocal rebuke against the fact that France submitted it to the Academy as its candidate for International Feature, not because this is a subpar entry, but because it wasn’t the one that the hoitiest of toitiest wanted. Four years ago voters decried the fact that Portrait of a Lady on Fire didn’t get picked, and this year, the response is the same because France didn’t opt for Anatomy of a Fall. And before you say “double standard,” this isn’t the same as India submitting Last Film Show over RRR last year. That was a case where the powers that be had ample evidence that RRR was the better choice, but went for something else, proverbially shooting themselves in the foot after seeing just how big a success RRR had already become. Most of the backlash against this film — and Les Misérables before it — was basically sight unseen, denigrating the entry before either it, or their preferred choice, was released to the general public. Essentially, they tried to torpedo someone else’s efforts rather than simply disagreeing with a creative choice once all the information was available.
Where do I stand on the matter? As far as I’m concerned, France’s Oscar committee made the right call. The Palme d’Or winner is a good enough film with a very frustrating conclusion, but ultimately it’s more memorable for what it didn’t do versus what it did. Instead, with The Taste of Things, I’m going to remember this film much more for what it was rather than what it could have been. From where I sit, that makes it the superior picture. It also doesn’t hurt that this one doesn’t manipulate the audience with an intentionally ambiguous ending that they sell for a hashtag.
Set in the 1880s, the story revolves around master chef Dodin Bouffant (played by Benoît Magimel) and his personal cook Eugénie (played by Juliette Binoche). From the opening images of eggs being cracked and a rustic kitchen being brought to life, their rapport is felt on the deepest levels, guiding a complicated love affair that resonates with all the hopeless romantics watching in the theatre.
The entire first act, which runs for a solid 45 minutes, focuses on a single meal being prepared for Dodin and his high society guests. Dodin himself starts in the kitchen, prepping the ingredients with Eugénie along with their assistant Violette (Galatea Bellugi) and her visiting niece Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), who is interested in learning how to cook. Despite the fact that she’s under 10 years old and has had no formal training, she’s able to identify a multitude of ingredients in a sauce that Dodin has made on taste alone, impressing the expert chef.
Once operations are underway, Dodin goes upstairs to entertain his friends, while the three women carry on in the kitchen. The exercise is a staged like a delicate ballet, with Eugénie teaching Pauline while also coordinating the culinary choreography with minute-perfect precision and timing. If programs like The Great British Baking Show are considered “food porn,” think of this as “food lovemaking,” a instant of pure synchronization with everyone — including Pauline as an unexpected variable — filling their roles in the truest fashion possible, each attuned to the needs of the others and the environment around them. The fact that what they prepare will leave you literally salivating in your chair only sears it further in your head, if you’ll forgive the pun.
In this respect, the nature of Dodin and Eugénie’s relationship plays more like a palate cleanser. After we’ve seen how they operate in their professional life, the details of their private life helps to settle things down and bring us back to reality, while also enticing us on what is to come. On a moonlit night on the estate where they grow their ingredients, Dodin proposes marriage for what is hinted to be the hundredth time or more. He and Eugénie have been partners in every sense of the word for more than 20 years, including living under the same roof, but never in the same room, but they’ve come to an understanding, and the proposal is more ritual than serious request. Dodin wants to make their love official to all around them, while Eugénie values at least the nominal state of independence. But more than that, there’s the necessary changes in their dynamic that would come with putting a legal label on what they have. “Am I your wife, or your cook?” she pointed asks late in the film, and the fact that Dodin easily grasps the weight of all that any answer would imply, is ultimately what solidifies their bond. Like oil and water, they can be used together, but the laws of chemistry will always find a way to keep them from truly mixing into one form, a theme that is bittersweet in any way you wish to interpret.
This works because of the immaculate camera work and editing, as well as the soothing performances of Magimel and Binoche. The way they feed into each other in the literal sense is only equaled by the figurative, as their kitchen skills become extensions of their passion and personalities. There’s a lived-in feel to both of these characters, and the actors convey that effortlessly. You could just as easily believe that they’ve been married for 50 years as you could buy them falling in love at first sight. Everything they do, be it an expression of their affections or their gourmet art, is meant to invoke those deep, foundational feelings and memories that explode with familiar joy and aspirational romanticism, with the visual profile serving as a delectable garnish.
There’s only one element that didn’t work for me entirely, and that was the predictability of the plot. In a weird way it feels like an overcorrection from Anatomy of a Fall, which steadfastly refused to provide a resolution. During the opening foray, we see a moment where Eugénie temporarily becomes dizzy and has to sit down, the lone hiccup in the highly orchestrated proceedings. When coupled with the aplomb with which Pauline takes to her duties helping out, you can instantly tell how this is all going to end. The French know romance and food, but they also know melancholy, and I’ll admit I was a tad dispirited to have the conclusion telegraphed so obviously.
It doesn’t take too much away from the experience, however, because the characterizations of Dodin and Eugénie are so rich that you still savor every second they’re on screen together. I know I’ve used a lot of food-based wordplay in this review, but it is strangely apropos and not just done for the sake of cheap laughs. We talk all the time about cinematic comfort food, movies that we can just kick back, relax, and enjoy with our brains turned off. The Taste of Things is the film equivalent of a fine dining experience, filled with delicious moments that will stir your senses. Yes, you might feel a bit remorseful when the bill comes, no matter how quickly you realize the devastating blow it’s going to be, but you’re still grateful for all that led up to it.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What are your favorite French movies? How much of that opening meal would you devour, and how quickly? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!