The Movie Waffler New to VOD - THE TASTE OF THINGS | The Movie Waffler


Hoping to win his lover's hand in marriage, a chef prepares to cook her a special meal.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Trần Anh Hùng

Starring: Juliette Binoche, Benoît Magimel, Emmanuel Salinger, Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire, Patrick d'Assumçao, Galatea Bellugi, Jan Hammenecker

The Taste of Things poster

There are many things they say you should never do on an empty stomach: take medicine, go to sleep, engage in physical activity etc. You can now add watching The Taste of Things to that cautionary list. Viewing Trần Anh Hùng's film with a rumbling tummy would be the most masochistic act imaginable, as not since 1965's Tampopo has a film been so hunger inducing. There are almost as many close-ups of food here as of actors, and when its characters aren't preparing or consuming food, they're speaking in poetic terms about the joy of gastronomy. Releasing this in mid-February, when everyone has just begun their post-holidays diets, is a cruel joke.

Inspired by Marcel Rouff's 1920 novel ' The Passionate Epicure', The Taste of Things plays out almost exclusively in the 1885 French country manor of gourmet chef Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel). Known as "the Napoleon of the culinary arts," Dodin is the toast of the aristocracy, who invite him to lavish parties and try to impress him with their own menus. Dodin is far happier when working in his kitchen, especially because that's where he gets to spend time with his long-serving cook Eugénie (Juliette Binoche). The two are wizards in the kitchen, as professionally in sync with one another as an ice-skating duo. They're also lovers, though Eugénie would probably laugh off such a label. Dodin has asked for her hand in marriage many times, but her attitude is one of "why spoil a good thing?" Dodin doesn't seem all that convinced about the sanctity of marriage himself, joking that "marriage is a meal that begins with dessert." But it's 1885. It's what's done.

The Taste of Things review

In an attempt to win Eugénie over, Dodin prepares a special meal that will double as a marriage proposal. Eugénie's hesitancy may be motivated by another factor. She's in poor health, constantly fainting, with local doctors stumped by her condition. Through modern eyes we surmise a life of being overworked is catching up with her. Eugénie savours every morsel that enters her mouth, and takes equal joy in watching others consume her food. She suspects she may not be able to appreciate such pleasures for much longer.

The best type of filmmaking is that which seems so simple that you don't realise you're watching something special until it sneaks up on you. Anh Hùng opens his film with a roughly 30 minute sequence that begins coyly and ultimately dazzles with the economy of its visual storytelling. We're simply left to watch as Dodin and Eugénie prepare a meal. The camera floats around them like an inquisitive bird as vegetables are chopped, broth is stirred and meat is cooked. Barely a word is exchanged between the pair. They've been doing this together for so long that words are unnecessary. By watching how they move around each other, how they glance at one another, we're left in no doubt that we're watching two people who have been in love for a long time. In love with one another, and with their craft (or art, as Dodin would no doubt argue). Dodin and Eugénie are aided and observed by Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), a young girl whose precocious palate sees Dodin professionally adopt her as a young apprentice. Pauline watches with the wonder of a child trying to figure out how a magician makes his assistant disappear. Dodin's housemaid, Violette (Galatéa Bellugi), helps out too, and she seems to adore her work and the people she works for, her face gleaming with the satisfaction of being a part of creating something special.

The Taste of Things review

A cynical viewer might scoff at The Taste of Things and dismiss it as a work of tone deaf bourgeois indulgence. It would be hard to argue against such an accusation, given how it narrowly focusses on a small group of people living a life of luxury in a time and place when 99% of the population were enduring a life of misery. The subplot regarding Pauline's grooming as a future gourmet is very charming until you think about how a child is working a full-time job. Eugénie's belief that a woman's place is in the kitchen is jarring to our modern sensibilities. But it's refreshing that a filmmaker has presented a period of the past warts and all without feeling obliged to add commentary from our more enlightened present. The characters of The Taste of Things behave as they would have in the late 19th century. It's not easy to reconcile, but that's history.

Dodin and Eugénie are so charming that we can easily overlook how they're the sort of people who might have faced the guillotine in an earlier era of French history. Binoche and Magimel are former real-life lovers who have clearly put their differences aside in that very mature French manner. This offscreen relationship adds an extra layer to their onscreen dynamic. Here are two friends and co-workers who failed as lovers playing friends and co-workers wondering if they could succeed as husband and wife. What's most distinctive about The Taste of Things is how you don't really care as a viewer whether Eugénie accepts Dodin's proposal. Theirs is a love that doesn't require fortifying by a ring.

The Taste of Things review

Anh Hùng's film is also a rarity in cinema in how it explores the dynamic that forms between co-workers. Most people spend as much of their waking hours with their colleagues as with their own families, and yet few movies indulge this truth. Watching a tired Dodin and Eugénie enjoying a glass of wine and good conversation after a hard day's work, I was reminded of how many of the most meaningful conversations I've had in my life have been with co-workers at the end of a shift. There's a kinship you form with your co-workers in a way you never quite do with your spouse or lover. "How was your day?" is a question you never have to ask because you were a part of their day.

If there's an under-whelming course in the banquet that is The Taste of Things it's perhaps the lack of conflict. There are no ups and downs in Dodin and Eugénie's relationship, which makes the narrative feel a little flat in parts. Think of Phantom Thread if Daniel Day Lewis's dressmaker wasn't a narcissist but simply an adoring lover who delighted in creating dresses for his lover, and you'll have an idea of the dynamic here. Following a certain plot development, the movie loses its footing for much of its final act, only to resolve in yet another brilliant sequence that creeps up on you, a final virtuosic dish that will have you offering your compliments to the chef.

The Taste of Things is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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