The Taste of Things, the new French-language film from director Trần Anh Hùng, begins with an extended cooking sequence. Eugénie, played by Juliette Binoche, is in her element, a quiet but commanding presence in the kitchen. Having already harvested vegetables in the early morning, she wanders around the large sunlit space, frying the organs she has removed from the fish, preparing a copper pot of stock and stacking a rack of beef and hot trays of roasted vegetables.
Throughout the scene, sounds and dialogue are sparse: milk spilling, a whip clattering as Eugénie stirs the béchamel, her spoon clattering as she dips the quenelles into the poaching broth, birds chirping in the background. Because of this, the film is at once fascinating and transporting, set in 19th-century France (mostly) on the grounds of a villa. And just when you think Eugénie has finished her last element of the party, she asks for another ingredient.
Eugénie is joined by two new assistants and her gastronomic employer, Dodin, played by Benoît Magimel. For 20 years, Eugénie has been the anchor of Dodin’s kitchen, and therefore, of his life; he has been trying to convince her to marry him for a long time. (In real life, Binoche and Magimel have a daughter together, although they split years ago.) Eugénie and Dodin’s relationship centers on cooking for and with each other, and in the kitchen, they choreograph and delegate. silent of two people who have spent years doing just that. That food is a love language is underscored by the film’s release date: It hits theaters across the United States on Valentine’s Day.
Eugénie’s cooking gives way to the real party, which is for Dodin and his gourmet friends. Eugénie remains in the kitchen, where she manages the touches à la minute. When the food hits the table, it becomes clear, if it wasn’t already, that The Taste of Things it will go down as a food movie for the ages – sensual, luxurious and romantic. Perhaps the most impressive of all the dishes in this initial feast is the seafood vol-au-vent, which inspires awe from Dodin’s friends and moviegoers alike; you can hear the cracks in the layers of puffed dough as the Dodin rests.
Food remains central, both visually and thematically, as the story progresses to follow Eugénie and Dodin’s budding romance, the meals they continue to cook, and Eugénie’s subsequent illness. It was previously titled Pot-au-Feubehind the classic French dish that also features prominently.
The food is as much the star of the film as Binoche and Magimel, and all of that food was real, as was the cooking we see from both actors. To make this possible, Trần enlisted French chef Pierre Gagnaire, who consulted on the dishes and how to prepare them (and appears in the first look), as well as chef Michel Nave, an old colleague of Gagnaire’s, who provided on-site cooking support and culinary guidance to Binoche and Magimel. Eater interviewed Binoche and Gagnaire while they were in New York City to promote The Taste of Things to discuss the beauty and challenges of making such a food-focused film.
Eater: That long cooking sequence was such a nice introduction. I wonder if you could talk about the process of learning and shooting that scene.
Juliette Binoche: I think Hùng really achieved that. Hùng is very specific about camera movements; he calls himself the technical director. He spent a lot of time with Pierre choosing the right foods and dishes, what was historically correct, but also what would look good to film. He spent five days with her shooting in the kitchen and talking to historians. He sent us videos of Pierre cooking, so when I arrived on set, I already knew how Pierre was doing things. I knew it, and Benoît knew it too.
We only had one day of rehearsal before shooting the actual scene, but it wasn’t that difficult because Hùng had thought of everything. He really shot like a painter, making sure that the scene was always interesting, always moving, that it made sense for the plate. But we had to do the intro scene all together because it’s a sequence, so if one person was making a mistake, then we had to start over.
Pierre, how did your involvement in the film come about?
Pierre Gagnaire: I met Hùng seven years ago. We do a pot-au-feu every winter in the restaurant. He came because he wanted to try the pot-au-feu, talk to me about this project and see the quality of our work.
Juliette, what was your culinary training like for this role, if any?
JB: To train, it was just the day before. Pierre’s right hand was working on the set. [Michel Nave] taught us how to cook things, and all the proper gestures. He was very patient. Even though Benoît is a good cook and I cook too, it’s very specific and really goes to another level of cooking.
When there was a specific thing to do, Michel would say, “Yeah, no, do it more like that.” You see I cut the fish in the beginning, and we only had three fish. They showed me once and then I had to do it myself. You are scared because you think, What if I missed it? But it was actually the first to appear in the film.
How does your cooking at home differ from the kind of cooking you do on film?
JB: It’s not that sophisticated because I don’t have time. My character starts in the morning. She gets the vegetables, and this is an all-day process. Sometimes I cook all day because I have 10 people coming and I want to do my best and impress them, but it’s exhausting. It’s not as sophisticated as what Pierre does, because for him it’s a lifetime of thought.
PG: I don’t cook at home. It takes a lot of time. It’s my job, it’s my job. When I’m at home, it’s fast, fast, fast, because I’d rather watch a movie or read a book.
JB: He cannot cook and go to the table with other people eating – he cannot, like Eugénie, my character. In their work, it is really a problem to feed yourself.
Did working on this film change the way you cook at home at all?
JB: Well, we used a lot of butter. Now I dare to use more butter and clarify the butter, which is very important because otherwise it burns and does not do well.
What was the biggest challenge of cooking on set versus cooking at home or in a restaurant?
JB: The challenge of the film was to have the dishes ready, the heat ready and the shoot at the same time; to synchronize the two worlds was a difficult thing. There is also the rhythm: the camera is on him, then it will come to you, so the difficulty is to feel natural, that you have been doing this for centuries and centuries and it is not a secret to you. But acting is all about confidence, and if you have good confidence, it comes easily.
PG: Time. You go back and forth and stop. It’s not the same pace.
Do any of you have a favorite dish that appears in the movie?
JB: I loved everything. What I was very proud of is that at the end of the film, Michel Nave gave us a little book of recipes that we had gone through in the film and I was able to make it and I was very happy.
PG: Vol-au-vent. What’s tricky with a vol-au-vent is maintaining that crispy side when mixed with the sauce inside which is very creamy. It’s complicated to have both, but the way Hùng filmed the vol-au-vent was incredible. Sounds are very important.
What was your favorite thing about working on this film?
JB: At the end of the day, after making this film, I can say that it is a gift to my daughter, because Benoît is my daughter’s father and we have been separated for a long time. This film was a kind of reconciliation between him and me, because we used Hùng’s script to say to each other, I love you. it’s okay. Everything is alright. I think our daughter having this is the best.
Parts of this interview were conducted in French, with translation provided by Binoche. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.