If a random person were asked to dream up a French film, it would be difficult to come up with one more stereotypically French than The Taste of Things. Set in the late 1800s, featuring wealthy people who also don’t seem to have jobs, and focusing almost entirely on the pursuit of gastronomy, the film is about as French as they come.
The story centers on the household of gourmand Dodin Bouffant (Benoit Magimel), who for 20 years has had Eugenie (Juliette Binoche) cooking extravagant meals for him and his coterie of fellow food lovers (all male, naturally). The film opens on one such meal, with the camera lovingly watching Eugenie and her helper Violette (Galatéa Belugi) prepare the multi-course dinner, and indulging in the men enjoying it.
Over the years, the relationship between Dodin and Eugenie, who also lives in his home, has gone beyond just that of employer and employee, although Dodin is keener to push for a full-fledged relationship than Eugenie is. When Eugenie starts experiencing health issues, the idea of their relationship and who might succeed in her cooking brilliance becomes of paramount importance for both of them.
Written and directed by Anh Hung Tran, the film seems to be setting its sights almost entirely on foodies. To call the opening meal “detailed” is to undersell what it has to offer, as it comprises almost a quarter of the film’s running time, 30 interrupted minutes of food being prepared and consumed. Even if a particular viewer is averse to more challenging dishes like sweetbreads or foie gras, the process of making the dishes and the filming of it remains impressive.
Also notable is that the actors seem to be the ones doing most of the cooking. Although editing surely plays a part in some of the preparations, Magimel, Binoche, and others appear to be hands-on for the majority of it, giving an extra touch of realism to the film as a whole. And because the actors work closely together in that realm, it lends their characters a feeling of intimacy that translates to the non-food scenes as well.
When the story turns in the film’s final hour, the level of attention to detail pays dividends. Viewers may not be able to entirely relate to a man who has the leisure to spend his entire life enjoying food at its finest, but the emotions that crop up through his relationship with Eugenie and others certainly come through. And the name-dropping of esteemed French chefs like Escoffier will have a certain segment salivating at what it was like to live in such a time.
Binoche is the lone actor who has name recognition in the United States, and she continues to be fantastic, making her presence known even when the food threatens to be the star of the show. Magimel is also great, as he makes Dodin into someone who’s both supremely confident and empathetic at the same time. Special notice should also go to Belugi and Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire, two young actors who keep the film from being too stuffy.
While The Taste of Things doesn’t have the heft of Oscar-nominated international films like Anatomy of a Fall or The Zone of Interest, it has a certain charm to it that keeps it watchable throughout. And with the food appeal practically crashing through the screen, it’s the ultimate foodie delight.
The Taste of Things is now playing in theaters.