The Taste of Things (2023, dir. Trần Anh Hùng)

by | Feb 14, 2024

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 135 mins

UK Distributor: Picturehouse Entertainment

UK Release Date: 14 February 2024

WHO’S IN THE TASTE OF THINGS?

Juliette Binoche, Benoît Magimel, Emmanuel Salinger, Patrick d’Assumçao, Galatea Bellugi, Jan Hammenecker, Frédéric Fisbach, Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire, Jean-Marc Roulot, Yannik Landrein, Sarah Adler

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Trần Anh Hùng (director, writer), Olivier Delbosc (writer), Jonathan Ricquebourg (cinematographer), Mario Battistel (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A gourmet chef (Binoche) is courted by her years-long employer (Magimel)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE TASTE OF THINGS?

If you’re a follower of the annual circus that is awards season, it’s highly likely that you’ve already heard of writer-director Trần Anh Hùng’s film The Taste of Things… but not necessarily for the right reasons. That’s because back in September, the French-language film – which debuted to strong reviews at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and even went home with the Best Director prize for Hùng – was surprisingly named as France’s official submission for the International Feature Film Oscar.

It was especially shocking, since the country’s presumed pick was another Cannes favourite: Justine Triet’s gripping courtroom drama Anatomy of a Fall, which won the Palme D’Or and had since been touted as a possible contender for many other awards, including the Oscars. Nevertheless, The Taste of Things was picked instead, which many in France’s film sector, and indeed the international film circuit as a whole, believe to be a form of punishment for Triet after she used her Palme D’Or acceptance speech to criticise French President Emmanuel Macron’s deeply unpopular pension reforms. Of course, Triet ended up having the last laugh, for Anatomy of a Fall has gone on to be nominated for 5 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, while The Taste of Things failed to make the final shortlist for International Feature Film.

In all, though, it’s sad that a film as gentle and compassionate as The Taste of Things became so caught up in petty politics, because although Anatomy of a Fall is, at least in my opinion, the stronger overall movie, Hùng’s film has a sweet and tender nature about itself that would have made it a fine contender had it been nominated.

Set in 19th century France, the film focuses on the relationship between wealthy gourmet restauranteur Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel), and his cook of 20 years, Eugénie (Juliette Binoche). The two share an unmistakable bond as they help one another create some utterly irresistible meals for Dodin and his friends, from roasted veal racks to the most salivating Baked Alaska dessert that you’ve ever seen. Yet, despite his regular proposals that they become more than co-workers, Eugénie refuses to give up her freedom and settle into married life. However, certain circumstances drive the couple further together, with the power of their culinary skills providing a gateway to a possible happy ending for the both of them.

The thing about The Taste of Things is that it is exceptionally indulgent, and that seems entirely by design. It is a film where the first twenty to thirty minutes alone are dedicated to showing in great, drawn-out detail the various routines and methods that the two central characters, with occasional help from young culinary prodigy Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), use to create their dishes. Trần Anh Hùng makes the viewer hear and feel every sizzle in the pan, every crunch of the ingredients, and even every bird call far in the background of this countryside setting, across an expanded runtime where, when you break it down, very little often happens within the narrative. This is very much a slow-burn (or, more appropriately, a slow-cook), to where I can easily see it not winning over everyone, especially those who prefer things to actually happen within such a large amount of time. In fact, at my screening I counted at least one or two couples who decided to walk out midway through, presumably because their eyes were bigger than their stomachs, in more ways than one.

It’s easy to dismiss a film like The Taste of Things as empty and even boring, based purely on the slow and uneventful slog that it seems to be on the surface. However, there is a considerable amount of tenderness underneath it, which   Hùng carefully simmers to a point where you are still invested in this central romance, despite the lack of narrative drive surrounding it. You certainly feel the palpable connection between these two main characters, not least of all because the actors give neatly understated turns where you still sense their burning chemistry, and as their journey comes towards a definitive yet bittersweet turning point, the charm that they radiate, in addition to their underlying feelings of passion for each other and their cooking rituals, does hold your interest throughout. It is a romance, through and through, and it does a fine job of making that element of the story stand out as one that you can easily get behind and experience the necessary number of emotions whilst watching it.

It is also, to put it bluntly, pure food porn. No joke, the scenes in this film where the characters are just cooking or preparing the various meals that they serve up, of which there are many, are all shot and paced like they’re the culinary equivalent of something you’d find on Brazzers or one of the many other adult video websites. The ways in which Hùng and cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg manage to capture the making and serving of each succulent dish is enough to arouse any hardcore foodie out there, or at the very least make your stomach growl as you see all this food be marinaded, boiled, fried and drenched to perfection. The filmmakers pour every last drop of their soul into these extended sequences where absolutely no non-diegetic music is playing, with all the sizzling and crunching of the food providing all the soundtrack that’s needed, and their passion shows each and every time a piece of digestible substance pops up on the screen.

Though it is ultimately a bit too slow at times, to where it threatens to become ever so slightly tedious, The Taste of Things is an entirely pleasant romance that offers plenty of food for thought, as well as just food in general. Obviously, it’s not the better film that France could have submitted this year (again, Anatomy of a Fall was right there), but this is a watchable slice of cinema that’s easy to digest, and enough to leave you visibly salivating.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Taste of Things is an exceptionally indulgent but no less romantic historical drama that houses plenty of sweet tenderness underneath its slow-cook pace, and treats scenes of food preparation with arousing passion.

Three out of five stars

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