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'The Taste of Things' is a sizzling romance and foodie feast — but don't go in hungry

Juliette Binoche prepares one elaborate dish after another in <em>The Taste of Things.</em>
Stéphanie Branchu
IFC Films Release
Juliette Binoche prepares one elaborate dish after another in The Taste of Things.

I first saw The Taste of Things at 8:30 in the morning at a Cannes Film Festival press screening last year. Like a lot of other journalists, I walked in jet-lagged, bleary-eyed — and hopeful that what I was about to see would, at the very least, keep me awake. It did, and then some.

In the opening moments, as I watched Juliette Binoche putter about a rustic 19th-century French kitchen, whipping eggs for an omelet, my stomach began to rumble, and I wished I'd had more for breakfast than an espresso. In time I was not only fully alert but held rapt as Binoche prepared one elaborate, mouth-watering dish after another: a roasted veal loin, a milk-poached turbot, a shimmering baked Alaska.

For about 40 minutes, she cooks and cooks and cooks in a gorgeously directed sequence that plays out with very few words and no music — just the sounds of sizzling butter, bubbling broth and utensils scraping against crockery.

The Taste of Things is, in every sense, a feast of a movie — a foodie tour de force to set beside such culinary classics as Babette's Feast, Like Water for Chocolate and Tampopo. It's also one of the most deeply felt romances to hit the screen in ages.

It's 1889, and Binoche plays Eugénie, who's lived and worked for years as the cook in the home of a famous gourmet, Dodin Bouffant, who's known throughout France as "the Napoleon of the culinary arts." He's played by Benoît Magimel. Both Eugénie and Dodin have spent their lives in the pursuit and perfection of culinary pleasure, something we see from the ease and assurance with which they move around the kitchen.

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel in <em>The Taste of Things.</em>
Stéphanie Branchu / IFC Films Release
IFC Films Release
Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel in The Taste of Things.

We can also see that they're deeply in love; indeed, it's hard to tell where their love for food ends and their love for each other begins. For years Dodin has asked Eugénie to marry him, but she doesn't see why their years-long commitment to each other requires the official blessing of marriage. On most nights, he steals up to her bedroom, at which point the camera discreetly turns away; after you've seen Dodin prepare Eugénie a dish of oysters, watching them make love would be practically redundant.

The movie was exquisitely written and directed by Trần Anh Hùng, a Vietnamese French filmmaker who, from his early films like The Scent of Green Papaya, has always delighted in ravishing the senses. His script, very loosely drawn from Marcel Rouff's classic 1924 novel, The Passionate Epicure, doesn't have a ton of plot. Instead it glides from one leisurely multi-course meal to another, observing as dishes are prepared and eaten, and eavesdropping on snatches of dinnertime conversation. It isn't the story that makes The Taste of Things so enveloping; it's the luscious atmosphere of unhurried indulgence and vicarious privilege.

As the film continues, it becomes more elegiac in tone; this is a story about the passage of time and the sacrifices that artists make in devoting themselves to their craft. Eugénie and Dodin consider taking on a young apprentice named Pauline, who already shows promising signs of becoming a great cook — but as they note, it will take years of intense practice and study for her to realize her potential. Meanwhile, Eugénie isn't in the best of health; she keeps having fainting spells, which she tries to downplay. It's a reminder that nothing lasts forever, not yesterday's meals or even tomorrow's discoveries.

The Taste of Things isn't the only great foodie movie of the season. You may have also heard about Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros, Frederick Wiseman's magnificent four-hour documentary about the operations of a family-owned three-Michelin-star restaurant in France's Loire Valley. Ridiculously, Menus-Plaisirs, easily one of the best nonfiction films of last year, wasn't even shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Meanwhile, France submitted The Taste of Things for the international feature category, but it wasn't ultimately nominated. But the lack of official recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn't diminish the beauty and satisfaction of either of these two movies. See them both, one after another if you can — and don't forget to eat in between.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.