'The Taste of Things' Is a Delectable Romance to Be Savoured

Directed by Trần Anh Hùng

Starring Juliette Binoche, Benoît Magimel, Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire, Galatéa Bellugi

Photo: Carole-Bethuel / Mongrel Media

BY Mila MatveevaPublished Nov 22, 2023

In Trần Anh Hùng's The Taste of Things, viewers are immediately thrust into the midst of the controlled flurry of gourmet chef Dodin's (Benoît Magimel) kitchen, run by his longtime cook Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) with a knowing precision.

On this day — and it will take the entire day — they are preparing a multi-course meal for a group of doctors Dodin is entertaining, with the help of young Violette (Galatéa Bellugi) and even younger Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), whose intrinsic knack for flavours makes her a prime potential apprentice.

With every course, scenes of the gourmands dining and enjoying are intercut with the unspoken, ongoing preparation of the next offerings. Dodin and Eugénie's choreography around the kitchen and each other communicates a deep intimacy, both moving to a sonata ingrained deeply after 20 years of collaboration. There is scarcely any dialogue — just the quiet knowing of each other's rhythms interjected with scenes of Dodin describing the dishes to their guests.

By the time the meal is over and the guests are ready to burst, Eugénie nearly collapses. We, too, feel the heat of the stove and the dizzying exhaustion of her being on her feet since dawn, but never lacking an underlying satisfaction for the mouthwatering results of her labour.

Set in 19th century France, lavish meals like this — for doctors and princes — are planned carefully and strategically throughout the film, but the story really unravels through the meals that Dodin and Eugénie prepare for each other. The preparation of these daily necessities is clearly much more than nourishment for the corporeal, and the dynamic between the two is no game of outwitting the other. The joy in surprising each other with flavours and combinations unfurls as a clearly deep-rooted, years-long love: Dodin and Eugénie are not married, but for years they have enjoyed a relationship in the kitchen and in the bedroom, living apart with him visiting her clandestinely in the evenings. She has no interest in changing their status quo with a proposal.

Late in the film she poses the question, "Am I your cook or your wife?" Dodin answers, "My cook," to her satisfaction — a charged and understated critique of gender dynamics and a wink at the under-appreciated labour of innumerable matriarchs throughout time. If Eugénie were his wife, would she have the freedom to run this kitchen? The garden? The freedom to allow Dodin to enter her bedroom sometimes, and other times not? As a cook, she has the power of the title, without the burden of everything else. But it is semantics in their world, where she is both and holds the power regardless, with Dodin happy to be her collaborator and her lover.

Swirling around this quiet, tender romance is a completely sensory experience of food, which also represents the impermanence of life. A meal is not just a decadent display of braised pork chops and Baked Alaskas, but a conduit for finding and seeking pleasure in the everyday, for stretching out the joy in something momentary.

Much like their never-ending excitement for creating something delectable in the kitchen, their long love story pulses in parallel. Food does not replace sex, and sex does not replace food (and sex is never shown, because it doesn't need to be). Instead, all pleasures are not only allowed and savoured, but should never stop being pursued because they may not always be within reach and can never be replicated. Despite its ubiquity, a meal is ephemeral and reverent in The Taste of Things, like every passing moment. It should be singular, enjoyed as if it were the last.
(Mongrel Media)

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