Trần Anh Hùng, the Vietnamese-born French director known for his Oscar-nominated film The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) and Norwegian Wood (2010), returns with another gorgeous work, The Taste of Things. Due for UK release in February 2024, the film is already out in France.
As its title indicates, the film is about gastronomy. The Taste of Things has already won the best director award at Cannes, and has now been chosen as the French entry for best international feature film (over Cannes Palme d’Or winner Anatomy of a Fall) at the 2024 Oscars.
Written by Hùng, The Taste of Things was inspired by a 1924 novel by gastronomic writer Marcel Rouff. It tells a simple romance-in-the-kitchen story set in late 19th-century France.
Dodin (Benoît Magimel) is a wealthy gourmet who claims that inventing a new delicious meal contributes more to the happiness of humanity than the discovery of a star. He leads a happy life as, every day, he gets to savour the marvellous work of his cook – an elegant woman named Eugénie (Juliette Binoche).
Although both are devotees of food, Dodin loves talking about it while Eugénie mostly focuses on cooking. When Dodin’s guests complain about Eugénie never joining them at the table after a lavish multi-course dinner, she gracefully responds that she has already communicated with them through her food.
There is one small obstacle to Dodin’s complete happiness. He is eager to make Eugénie his wife, but she seems to love her independence more than she desires his commitment. Dodin’s blissful life is threatened further still when Eugénie falls inexplicably ill.
A feast for the senses
The film opens with an almost 40-minute sequence of food being prepared inside a kitchen. In an interview with Variety, Hùng shared how they filmed this ritual of cooking carefully, like an elaborate choreography for a ballet.
The almost hypnotic sequence shows how Eugénie works her craft with ease, even though the work involves some physical labour as the cook and her assistants lift large hot pots around the kitchen. There is something artistic in the way Eugénie handles the ingredients, mixes them together and cooks them. Her cooking creates magic.
This is a movie that not only pleases the eyes but entertains the other senses. Audiences can take pleasure in following the rhythm of all that elaborate preparation, listening to the sounds of food being simmered or grilled, imagining the scent of the food being cooked or even the taste of it in the mouth.
With meticulous attention to food and how it is prepared, the film’s plot embraces simplicity. There is little conflict and drama. Former off-screen romantic partners Magimel and Binoche show great chemistry, their characters sometimes communicating through glances and smiles rather than words.
A matter of taste
The French title of the film is La Passion de Dodin Bouffant. I prefer the original UK title, The Pot-au-Feu, which was changed at the time of the US release. It refers to a quintessential French dish – making the film less about the male lead and more about the food, a character in its own right.
Whether The Taste of Things is the best French film of 2023 is a question of personal taste. But it well represents Frenchness in its celebration of savour-vivre – the ability to enjoy life. Here, the joy of cooking and enjoying good food is celebrated above all.
The message of living in the moment is made even more poignant as Eugénie grows increasingly fragile. It is a cliché but forever true: if life is so short, unpredictable and punctuated by dissatisfaction and loss, the best thing we can do is to enjoy the time we have.
As a mostly light, romantic movie with a predictable twist, The Taste of Things never touches on the uncomfortable issue of class division. This is despite the apparent difference in status between Dodin and both Eugénie and the maid Violette, played by Galatéa Bellugi, who is also their kitchen assistant.
The film may be a bit escapist, yet its beauty and humour remind us of the things that make our mundane lives worth living for.
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Thi Gammon does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.