The Food Film, à la France
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The Taste of Things (Trần Anh Hùng, 2023)
In the year 2000, Juliette Binoche opened a chocolaterie. It was a fictional chocolate shop, set in a fictional French village in 1959, and Binoche was playing a fictional chocolatier, Vianne Rocher (sadly no relation to the Ferrero family, who are Italian—though I agree, that would have been funny). “Opening a chocolaterie, just in time for Lent—the woman is brazen!” scolded Alfred Molina’s town mayor in the film, Chocolat.
It’s been some time since I last watched Chocolat, but here’s what I remember: a ponytailed, guitar-strumming Johnny Depp; lusty close-ups of ganache swirled with double cream; a bucolic medieval village dipped in honey-colored light. It was aggressively cozy, unapologetically middlebrow, and perceived as winningly “French” (by those who were not French) in its exotic ooh-la-la embrace of decadence and sensuality. Actually, it was directed by Lasse Hallström, a Swede.
I thought about Chocolat while watching Trần Anh Hùng’s new film The Pot-au-feu, retitled The Taste of Things for English-language audiences, which stars Binoche, once again wrapped in an apron and transported to a past era. Based on Marcel Rouff’s 1924 novel The Passionate Epicure, the film takes place in 1889, primarily in an extremely covetable farmhouse kitchen. Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel) is the epicure, and Binoche’s Eugénie his passion. She is his longtime cook, collaborator, and lover (but not yet wife). For 20 years, the two have studied recipes like sacred texts, and prepared them each day. He assembles the guests, who are mostly intellectuals and aristocrats, and presents them with her art. He assists, and she executes. Their arrangement provides her with a certain creative freedom. Toward the end of the film, Eugénie asks Dodin a loaded question: am I your cook, or your wife? It’s obvious which role she imagines would be more of a dreary chore.
The Taste of Things won Trần the award for Best Director at Cannes last year, where Variety’s Guy Lodge described it as “a slab of outright gastronomic spectacle on the level of Babette’s Feast or Like Water for Chocolate, only more so.” The New York Times’s Alissa Wilkinson has since deemed the film “one of those instant gastronomical classics designed to be savored over and over.” It appears that a new Food Film has entered the canon. I’m often skeptical of the genre and its food-porn proclivities, which invite audiences to escape into indulgence. But while The Taste of Things caters to a comfort-seeking crowd, it feels nourishing in its use of food as a tool for exploring story and character.
Nostalgia for a bygone era – 2 tbsp
Like all good Food Films, The Taste of Things reinforces the idea that reverence for exquisite produce and exquisite patience, for technique and generosity, is a thing of the past, and it’s true that today those aspects of cooking are often associated with the world of fine dining, or with aspirational middle-class home cooks who can afford to take their time.
But the film’s genuine respect for cooking as an art form is also informed by its period specificity. The Taste of Things is set in the Belle Époque of the late 19th century—the golden age of French culture and its international dissemination. The culinary arts were exploding, and by 1889, the year the film takes place, French restaurateur Auguste Escoffier was cooking at the Savoy Hotel in London and dreaming up modern creations like peach Melba, introduced just a few years later (the film offers a riff on this in the form of a Baked Alaska). As Dodin says in the film, there are just 13 years between the death of Antonin Carême, the “King of Chefs and Chef of Kings,” who professionalized the French culinary arts, and the birth of Escoffier, who reinvented them. In the film’s second act, when Dodin cooks for Eugénie, it’s in the Escoffier style: modern, surprising, a little showy.
Culturally specific cuisine – 2 heaping tbsp
The film’s French title, which translates to “pot on the fire,” comes from the quintessential peasant dish, made up of boiled beef and vegetables in broth—humble, perfect, and French. Like the timpano at the end of Big Night (1996), or Remy’s summer vegetable tian in Ratatouille (2007), the food in the film is an expression of national pride, and therefore of cultural purity. What’s subversive here, however, is that it is expressed by a Vietnamese immigrant, and therefore, as critic Phuong Le put it, “a radical act, a resistance against attempts to shackle non-white directors to ethnographic confessions.”
Actors with romantic history – 2 tsp (optional)
Dodin and Eugénie weave around each other in the kitchen with a fluidity that reveals their relationship. More than two decades of intimacy are conveyed in the harmonious way they navigate the space together. In real life, Binoche and Magimel dated for several years around the turn of the millennium, and the pair share a child. Their off-screen knowledge of each other’s bodies adds a little spice, though it’s not strictly necessary for a successful Food Film, if you don’t happen to have it in your store cupboard.
Demonstrate technique. Trần begins the film with a long, rhythmic sequence that follows the life cycle of a meal, from garden to table. But with the exception of a butter lettuce that Eugénie tenderly collects from the garden, she remains one step removed from the gnarly prep work. A turbot that she will poach in milk and serve with hollandaise sauce has been gutted and cleaned by the time it gets to her station. A loin of veal is seared, stock is strained, and a gorgeous seafood vol-au-vent is crowned with a tangle of leaves, dressed in melted butter, and met with an “Ooooh!” and a chuckle when it’s presented at the table to Dodin’s guests, an all-male gang of fellow food connoisseurs. The aforementioned Baked Alaska follows. By the time the last course has been served, Eugénie’s hair is only lightly frizzed, and her face glows with the sheen of hard work. There are two more of these grand performances in the film, each of which sees Trần’s camera moving lockstep with the kitchen’s meditative pace, and treating each individual action as part of an overall choreography. Interestingly, he dispenses with a traditional score, instead using the musicality of sizzle and steam to create an immersive soundtrack.
Emphasize seasonality. Dodin declares that taste is shaped by culture and memory—two things that can only be accrued over time. “One cannot be a real gourmet before the age of 40,” he tells his protégée, Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), whose youthful palate is not accustomed to the richness of roasted bone marrow. Dodin and Eugénie are in the autumn of their lives, and the film has as much esteem for chestnuts and pears as it does for spring chickens and summer berries.
Prioritize simplicity. There is an obvious parallel between the straightforward minimalism of the pot-au-feu that Dodin serves the Prince of Eurasia, in tribute to Eugénie, and the couple’s ordinary, everyday love. Here, simple is more satisfying, and just as special. Both the historic dish and the relationship stand the test of time.
Use food as an expression of love, not a metaphor for it. Cooking is how the couple communicate with one another, and a direct expression of anxiety, lust, and care. It’s through dishes like a delicate pea soup and a bird sculpted from spun sugar that we learn just how attuned Dodin and Eugénie are to one another’s well-honed tastes and needs.
Should a character fall ill at any point in the recipe, it is not recommended that a Victorian cough, sometimes labeled tuberculosis, be used to foreshadow their fate.
Simran Hans is a writer and film critic living in London.