The Taste of Things was France’s submission to the 2024 Oscars’ Best International Feature Film category. Set in 1885, Eugénie (Juliette Binoche), an artist in the form of a cook, and Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Maginel), a renown gourmet who heads a group of all-male four fellow foodies, are an unmarried couple who have lived and cooked alongside each other for twenty years. They have a loving and established routine in the kitchen and bedroom. Dodin wants to marry Eugénie, but Eugénie wants to choose him every moment, not be obligated to serve him. An unexpected turn of events makes Eugénie reconsider changing their comforting routine.
Binoche and Maginel were married in real life from 1998 through 2003 so it is unsurprising that the pair are convincing as soulmates who found common ground in food, a sensuous crossroads between taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. Unfortunately, film only permits the latter two, but Vietnamese French director and cowriter Tràn Anh Hùng and the cast take their time to create a sumptuous feast for the eyes that often wordlessly convey Eugénie and Dodin’s dedication and artistry. The Taste of Things is a film that shows and does not tell. The dialogue is elegantly sparse.
Contemporary viewers are used to seeing action in kitchens portrayed like rapid fire war zones of barked orders and quick cuts as if chefs and cooks were on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. In contrast, Eugénie and Dodin’s cooking is soothing and calm. The action starts in the garden, the home to the freshest ingredients, before entering the kitchen where a kitchen assistant helps. The lighting is warm and natural with nature as a complementary, tamed partner to the interiors. While the time dedicated to these scenes are not representative of the real-time that it takes to create these masterpieces, it is still longer than most frenetic paced meal prep sequences. A sex scene would be redundant because watching Eugénie and Dodin cook in the kitchen reflects the closeness and maturity of their relationship. They do not need to talk or scream “hot plate” to handle sharp objects or hot items. There is no whiff of danger in these inherently lethal tools. Their movement is like choreography, an elegant dance executed to perfection, and it also produces the best meals in the world.
Swiss author Marcel Rouff’s 1920 novel, The Passionate Epicure: La Vie et la Passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet, inspired the creation of the film’s Dodin and some of the scenarios featured in The Taste of Things. The book unfolds in the 1830s and references Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a pioneering writer of gastronomic studies and French lawyer who briefly fled to the U.S. to survive the Terror following the French Revolution. Many have suggested that the self-imposed exile inspired Rouff’s protagonist. Rouff ends with committed bachelor Dodin-Bouffant meeting an admiring, beautiful, well-off talented cook whereas Hùng centralizes the relationship, not the competitive exploits between Dodin-Bouffant and the Prince of Eurasia. The symbolism is not about France’s superiority on the battlefield of cuisine. The showstopper meal is not the one that Dodin cooks for the Prince, but a meal that he cooks for Eugénie, who otherwise dominates the kitchen on screen while he participates before enjoying the meal with their friends. While Dodin’s reputation is still on display, it is not the focal point.
The Taste of Things is an aspirational film about people who can devote their lives to who and what they love. Food becomes a form of self-expression for the individual and a love letter for the couple. It is so French and romantic that you may briefly forget practical considerations like how they can afford to do this all day. Dodin, a former restaurant owner, and Eugénie, his former restaurant cook, are retired, but was being a restaurateur so lucrative in those days?
Movies are just as interesting for what they omit as what they include. For the nineteenth century, Eugénie is a trailblazer for turning an assumed gender normative duty into a profession, remaining unmarried and having no biological children. The four friends admire and beg her to join them for the meal, but she prefers to eat with the servants. Is it a coincidence that her decisions result in resembling the traditional life of men’s only eating clubs and her life revolves around a man without friends or any women companions who are not servants? No wonder the movie is far removed from its revolutionary backdrop. The Taste of Things still creates a world where the man is the internationally famous one whom heads of state want to meet while Eugénie is satisfied with playing in the shadows. She often feels like a construct of a man’s dream: the drive of an ambitious woman without the desires of one. She eschews any suggestion that she is a genius. Feminism is about giving women the right to choose, but when choices constantly align with the ways of the past, is it a choice or just perpetuating and replicating the status quo because of a failure to interrogate and deconstruct the past?
Dodin gets to be a fantasy as well. Eugénie exhibits signs that she is getting ill, which only enflames Dodin to marry her sooner in the autumn of their lives. 2023 seemed to be a year of depicting onscreen men as devoted caretakers to their ailing partners with The Taste of Things and The Blue Caftan, a story about a tailor as an artist who is sexually attracted to men and whose wife is dying. The reality is less encouraging. A 2009 study showed that heterosexual men are likely to leave their ailing heterosexual women partners. Maybe romanticizing caring for a spouse will help, but are the men who leave likely to watch a French film or a Moroccan film about a closeted gay man? Probably not so the film may function as perpetuating the myth that marriage is more fulfilling and a form of security for women than reality suggests. In a world where women usually outlive their male romantic partners, the movies are a mortal looking glass for the fairer sex.
The Taste of Things and The Blue Caftan show its ailing women protecting their partner from a possible future life of loneliness. In Hùng’s film, hopefully Eugénie’s goal is to produce the heir that they never had: a prodigy Pauline (Bonnie Chagneay-Ravoire), whom she encourages Dodin to take on as an apprentice. Like Eugénie, Pauline boasts a culinary heritage and natural gifts long before meeting Dodin and seems like a natural successor, but this is a French film. France is the land of Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional, in which a sexualized 12-year-old girl becomes the protégé of an assassin. It is also a refuge for the talented auteur Roman Polanski, a fugitive who pled guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl. It may be presumptuous to assume that Pauline will be treated as a child in Dodin’s household though nothing within the film suggests anything other than professionalism except the obvious equation of food with romantic love. The audience cannot watch television and wag their tongue from their armchairs at parents foolish enough to send their children without supervision to a celebrity like Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, and Dan Schneider without at least raising an eyebrow at this proposal, especially during the nineteenth century when girls and women had fewer protections on the books.
If your mind does not speculate, The Taste of Things is the kind of movie that would have won loads of accolades and stood above the rest in the past, but the subdued, deliberate pace of a period piece with subtitles may turn off people looking for a little more flash in their romantic dramas. It is a well-executed film of grand beauty and maturity, but a little too old-fashioned in its approach to the characters and their emotional journey.
IFC Films will release The Taste of Things in theaters on February 9.