At the center of everything good in the world is a bitter core: All things pass. The grandest cathedral, the most vivid painting, a beautiful harmony, a perfect aperitif – none of them will last forever. And all great love stories end, in one way or another, in sadness.
It will break your heart if you think about it too long, with both sadness and joy. Yet somehow it is also what makes life worthwhile. This conundrum lies at the heart of The Taste of Things, a wonderful culinary romance from French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung. The couple living in the puzzle are Eugénie (Juliette Binoche), an excellent cook, and the renowned gourmet for whom she works, Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel). It’s the end of the 19th century and they live in an idyllic house in the French countryside, where Dodin entertains friends and visitors. The kitchen is the beating heart of the home.
Nothing is more important to Eugénie and Dodi than preparing extraordinary meals, from simple omelettes to the kind of feasts that last a lifetime. Nothing except, perhaps, each other. They are not married, despite Dodin’s pleas over the past 20 years. Eugénie smiles enigmatically and shakes her head; she doesn’t want to change anything. But in the end it is inevitable that autumn will come.
The film premiered in Cannes under the title “The Pot-au-Feu”, named after one of its central dishes, a rustic meal of stewed meat and vegetables. However, in French the title is “La Passion de Dodin Bouffant”, which is also the title of the 1920s novel on which it is loosely based (published in English as The Passionate Epicurean). That novel features one of the most indelible characters in culinary fiction, a gourmet whom author Marcel Rouff loosely based on the French cookery writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, born in 1755. (Yes, the cheese is named for him.)
Brillat-Savarin is perhaps best known for his book The Physiology of Taste: Or Meditations on Transcendent Gastronomy, which tells you a little about him as well as the protagonist of The Taste of Things. His book has recipes, but it’s really an often funny rhapsody of fear over the joy people are allowed in the simple act of eating. Brillat-Savarin famously said, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are,” an aphorism that it’s easy to imagine Dodin trading with his friends around the dining table. In the eyes of men like these, food reveals character. For a host, a carefully constructed meal is evidence of his care for the guest, as well as his self-image: Does he brag? Praying? Showing his insecurities? Or invite others to enjoy the divine? The willingness of a guest to dive with relish into a meal prepared before them shows not only care for the host, but also the bounty that the land offers.
And then, of course, there are real artists, cooks and cooks. For them, the culinary arts are the highest expression of humanity, because they are the product of everything that makes us human: time and attention, every sense, every sensation and, in the end, it is completely transient. Every good meal is a memory.
The Taste of Things gourmets are well versed in the culinary tradition of their time (sometime in the late 19th century), discussing the pioneering chef Antonin Carême – who rose from a humble background to become one of the most important codifiers and innovators of grand cuisine in French history – as well as his protégé, Auguste Escoffier. “We live with the legacy of Carême,” Dodin tells his friends. “With Escoffier, we dream of the future.”
However, Dodini is famous himself, enough to be called the “Napoleon of gastronomy”, a name he finds a little embarrassing. The emissary of the prince of Eurasia arrives at his house to invite him and his friends to dinner, but at that table they find a groaning past of debilitating madness, tastes and wines, sauces and mixed cuisines beloved ram. For Dodi and Eugénie, this signals not good taste, but no taste. No true gourmet would prepare such a meal. For them, the epitome of a great meal is its grace, the kind of thing Eugénie embodies in her command of the kitchen. She is extremely intuitive, as masterful as a great painter.
Tran could have painted The Taste of Things, its brilliance is so immediately appealing. At one point he serves us a perfectly ripe pear, shot in close-up to emphasize its sugary juice, then fades (a little cheekily) to Eugénie, arranged like an odalisque, nude on her bed, a gift she is giving. Binoche seems to glow from within, a woman completely at peace with herself. Dodini tells Eugénie that St. Augustine said, “Happiness is continuing to desire what we already have,” and looks at her tenderly. “But you,” he asks, “did I ever have you?”
He does not have. Eugénie is not a woman to be had. She is herself, choosing with whom and when to share herself – generous, but, having mastered her art, someone who practices it for her own pleasure. The transitory nature of the culinary arts is reflected for him in the poignant passage of the seasons.
Like other members of the cinematic food canon – “Tampopo”, “Eat Drink Man Woman”, “Babette’s Party”, “The Big Night” – “The Taste of Things” is not just an excuse to look at food. The food prepared in this film means something: a labor of love, a concept of pleasure, the immense melancholy inherent in creating something so exquisitely beautiful that it will be only a memory an hour later.
However it is not NO also for food. In a phenomenological way, The Taste of Things captures the joy of variety infused into existence: savory and sweet, hot and sour, juice and cream and astringent are not required for pure existence, but the rich range of flavors that we created in our daily meals says something about human desires that are not easily expressed in words. This mystery, like love, is hard to fathom: Though we know loss is intertwined with celebration, we choose to enjoy it anyway.
The Taste of Things
Unrated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.