THE TASTE OF THINGS Review: You Will Get Hungry!

Editor, Europe; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
THE TASTE OF THINGS Review: You Will Get Hungry!

In September 2023, The Film By the Sea Festival in Vlissingen focused on French cinema, and on literary book adaptations.

With Trần Anh Hùng's The Taste of Things they scored a double-whammy, as it falls in both categories. A loose adaptation of Marcel Rouff's 1924 novel La Vie et la Passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet, The Taste of Things is a surprisingly enjoyable film, a veritable highlight of cinema this year.

Director Trần Anh Hùng makes peculiar films, but he makes them well. The famous Japanese writer Murakami stated that Trần was the only director allowed to adapt his novel Norwegian Wood, and Trần's latest, The Taste of Things, even won the 'Best Director' award in Cannes this year.

And no wonder, as while its story seems like nothing much on paper, The Taste of Things pleasantly breezes by throughout its 145 minutes, surprising you when the end credits arrive. First, were those really 145 minutes? It felt more like 90! And second, why am I hungry for more?

We follow the extremely rich Dodin Bouffant, a retired judge who at the end of the 19th century lives in a castle, where he dedicates his life to perfecting French cuisine. Helping him is his staff, first and foremost of which is his cook Eugénie, who has been with him for decades.

Their respect for each other's skills and abilities has over the years grown into romantic love, but Eugénie keeps refusing any offer of marriage. When Eugénie has a mishap and can't cook for a few days, Dodin creates exquisite dishes himself and brings them to her room to woo her and make her feel better. Will his efforts have the intended effect? Meanwhile, a Eurasian prince challenges Dodin to a duel of taste...

Rouff's book mostly takes place during the cooking duel, describing all dishes in meticulous detail. While the prince presents a wealthy menu of excesses, Dodin decides to retaliate and fight his opponent with a deceptively simple country recipe: the Pot-au-Feu (I suspect the script of Pixar's Ratatouille borrowed a few things from this novel...).

This is why the film has being marketed with no less than three different titles: The Passion of Dodin-Bouffant, The Pot-au-Feu, and The Taste of Things. I will keep to the North-American title in this article, which is The Taste of Things.

Whatever the film is called, throughout its running time you don't get to see anything like character development or personal growth. Trần basically ditches the duel and focuses on a few details and explanations in the book: Dodin's relationship with his staff, and how they cook as a team.

So what you do get to see is people cooking. Lots and lots of cooking.

The film starts with Dodin and Eugénie preparing dinner for a few of Dodin's gourmet friends, and Trần follows the proceedings in almost excruciating detail for a extended amount of time. But by the end of the meal you know who everyone is, what their dispositions are, and you have a pretty good understanding of the underlying emotions.

Because, and this is the secret of why the film is so extremely watchable, there is true chemistry between all of the actors. In what is a masterstroke by Trần Anh Hùng, Dodin and Eugénie are played by Benoît Magimel and Juliette Binoche, who were married from 1998 until 2003, are still friends and share a daughter.

The ex-couple sparkle when on screen together, and the years of intimacy with ups and downs between the two characters they play are instantly believable. Their shared love for food and friendship for each other feels real. With them constantly circling each other through the kitchen, with courtesy and care for the staff around them, The Taste of Things is a surprisingly gentle film, while being fiercely erotic without showing sex.

A word of advice: do not venture into a cinema to watch this film on an empty stomach. You will not survive.

With every dish presented, the audience in Vlissingen went "Oooooh...." and "Aaaaah...", and I saw a few things I definitely need to look up as a recipe. You will get hungry!

But the true wealth of the film lies in its depiction of a group of total food nerds and how their lives' enjoyment fully stems from their shared love of fine cuisine. Trần could have made the same film probably about Dungeons & Dragons players, or stamp collectors. Having said that, he makes cooking look damn cinematic.

The Taste of Things is one of the best films I've seen this year, and it's been a strong year. This film comes very highly recommended, and I need to seek out more films by Trần Anh Hùng.

Note: if I seem extremely knowledgeable with regards to the novel and the film's background, it is because of Anna de Bruyckere's excellent introduction to the film at the Film By the Sea Festival. Her insight was very much appreciated!

(Originally published in September 2023. The film opens Friday, February 9, in limited release before expanding throughout the U.S. on February 14 (Valentine's Day). Visit the official site for more information.)


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Benoît MagimelJan HammeneckerJuliette BinochePierre GagnaireTran Anh Hung

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