The next best thing to a romantic Valentine’s dinner at an expensive French restaurant with the finest food and wine money can buy is a movie about such a banquet. So take someone you love to a theater and feast your eyes on “The Taste of Things.” It’s the yummiest dish around.
Oscar winner Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel, former lovers off screen—they share a daughter born in 1999—excel as star-crossed foodies who craft mouth-watering dishes as a way of finding each other’s hearts. Not since “Babette’s Feast” has a cinema menu served audiences a cornucopia of delights this indecently delicious.
The film has scored a wowza 99 out of 100 on the review website Rotten Tomatoes, just a whisper short of perfection. I can’t imagine why, except watching the edibles being prepared (you can almost inhale the aromas) may cause hunger pangs that impel you to lick the screen.
Set at a French country manor in 1889, the film focuses on Magimel as Dodin Bouffant, a famed gourmet and sometime chef living with his personal cook and lover Eugenie (Binoche), who runs his kitchen with military precision. Just don’t expect her to say “Yes Chef” when he proposes. Eugenie craves independence.
And, of course, she gets it. When Dodin knocks at her door at night, he may or may not gain admittance. And when she cooks a sumptuous dinner for his discerning friends—as she does with extraordinary expertise in the film’s 30-minute stunner of an opening—she refuses to dine with them, preferring to connect through what they eat.
The film’s visual delights come courtesy of Trần Anh Hùng, the French-Vietnamese director best known for his 1993 debut feature, “The Scent of Green Papaya,” in which his magic could make a recently uprooted vegetable look like a ravishing thing of beauty.
And those near wordless scenes in the kitchen, supervised by famed chef Pierre Gagnaire, prove that action is indeed character as Dodin puts himself in the process as he and Eugenie prepare the meal with an assist from the older Violette (Galatéa Bellugi) and the novice Pauline (a fantastic Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), who hungers to become an artist like her employers.
Trần is equally masterful at honoring the delicacy of feeling that passes between lovers. It’s here that Binoche and Magimel, both magnificent, use their experience with each other on and off screen to match the culinary skill of their characters with their own acting artistry. They are wonders to behold.
Like Eugenie in the kitchen, Trần stays attuned to the cadences of the human heart. When mortality intrudes on whatever plans Eugenie has for the future, Dodin offers her comfort in the most caring way he knows how—he cooks for her. What he makes is pot-au-fou (the film’s original title), a simple broth of boiled meat and vegetables that requires time and attention to detail in its slow cooking. That’s just what Tran and his sublime actors provide in “The Taste of Things.” It’s a meal you’ll never forget.