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Recipe for Love

Festival de Cannes

The Taste of Things (2023)

“The Taste of Things” is like a tender lover, leaving you both sated and ravenous for much, much more. It is a movie about the art of cooking and how food and its preparations are a gift for those you love. It’s set in the 1890s, features a character repeatedly and sincerely called “the Napoleon of gastronomy” and deserves every single possible plaudit for how respectfully it takes the art of pleasure. Writer-director Tran Anh Hùng won the best director prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which should be the first of many, many awards for this exceptional film. Everyone it goes it should be thrown a parade, followed by a feast.

Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel) is a renowned gourmet who owns a large country home with an expansive vegetable and herb garden. The character was invented by novelist Marcel Rouff but this movie serves as a prequel to the official story. Dodin has two servants: Eugénie (Juliette Binoche), who has worked alongside Dodin as his cook for around 20 years, and Violette (Galatea Bellugi) the maid of all work. On this day, Violette brings in her niece Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), who immediately puts on an apron and gets to work. That night Dodin is hosting a dinner party for his four best friends; and the meal requires the entire day for its preparation. The first half hour or so of the film shows precisely this, with every element of the meal being shown coming together by the four workers, step by step. It is completely enthralling; and since real food was used on the set (prepared by Michel Nave, a retired chef who used to work with the gastronomic manager, Pierre Gagnaire) the hunger pangs created in the audience are equally genuine. The sounds are only the organic ones made in a kitchen – ovens opening and closing, eggs being whisked, the birds outside – and add to the sensory overload.

As part of this, Dodin gives Pauline two spoonfuls of a sauce and asks her if she can name the ingredients. Pauline concentrates and slowly names 20 separate ones, missing only a few of the minor spices. Ms. Chagneau-Ravoire is a real discovery here, with a seriousness about herself that’s sincerely endearing (in the press notes Mr. Tràn also praises her chewing ability, which is very funny). Her accuracy and understanding of the ingredients astonishes the adults. A genuine culinary talent has accidentally surfaced in their kitchen, but they play it cool. After all, she's only 14, and despite her obvious affinity for the work she might not be interested in being taken under their wing.

The dinner is of course a roaring success and afterward the men clamor for Eugénie to join them at table, but she laughingly refuses. Her place is in the kitchen and she has nothing to say she hasn't already communicated in her cooking. So she eats with Violette and Pauline - the precise food being served in the fine dining room, it's pleasing to note. At the end of the night Dodin goes to Eugénie’s room in the attic, a.k.a. the servants' quarters, and once again asks her to marry him. Eugénie once again refuses but notes that the door had not been locked; and she prefers an arrangement where she can lock it against him when she chooses.

The metaphor of the English title becomes apparent after that. A pot au feu is a kind of beef casserole, a working-class food, but one which Dodin proposes serving to a prince who has previously attempted to impress him by serving him and his friends a meal which took eight hours to consume. When Dodin runs this idea past Eugénie she blinks, then smiles at its audacity. Its ordinariness will be extraordinary to someone as spoiled as a prince. The French title is “La Passion de Dodin Bouffant,” which incorrectly focuses the attention on one half of the couple. A love story requires two parts, and the equally matched pair of Eugénie and Dodin glide around each other in their kitchen, basting meats, slicing lemons and handing each other utensils as if they have one mind. It’s so beautiful, with the light streaming through the window panes and the clean stone floor underfoot. Cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg and the entire crew must have had to choreograph their every action like a dance.

For it is also a dance, not only to choose what wine improves the flavors of the food and which vegetables will intensify the meats, but also this intertwining of food and the people who cook it. It’s very clear that Eugénie and Dodin bring out the best in each other, probably because Eugénie has insisted on her independence this entire time. Their interest in Pauline is remarkable for its professionalism – they treat her as a equal in talent with the appropriate allowances for her young age and resulting lack of skill – but there’s an unhappy plot twist which means it will be tricky for Pauline to benefit from all their knowledge. And yet. No matter what else disappears the love remains and what better way to demonstrate that love than with something good to eat.

One final thing. Ms. Binoche and Mr. Magimel are exes in real life (with an adult daughter, to boot). To create a gorgeously believable love story with a former partner is such an astonishing achievement it nearly defies belief – although any actor would have had to be in a coma to turn down these parts, no matter who you were playing opposite. Mr. Magimel makes Dodin comfortable with his own expertise but silently dismayed his achievements are so difficult for many others to surpass, even among his friends (and the respectful rapport around his dinner table is a marvelous depiction of adult friendship, too). But it’s Ms. Binoche who carries the film – she is, as Eugénie is, every inch a superstar, proud and confident of her abilities and uninterested in any fuss around them. She has spent her entire career going her own way, prioritizing working with interesting directors and creating an international name for herself as a fearless, curious, unusually committed actress. It’s so satisfying.


Brilliant, insightful review of a marvel of a film. As a late adopter of a vegan diet this film made me wistful for what I have been missing.

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