‘The Taste of Things’: Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel Light up the Kitchen in Trần Anh Hùng’s French Romance

Late 19th century France is an ideal setting for a romantic drama, but the kitchen is where the real action happens in Trần Anh Hùng’s “The Taste of Things.” This French Oscar submission centers on the well-worn, but still passionate love between a famous gourmand, Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel), and the woman behind the man, his chef, Eugénie (Juliette Binoche). After 20 years of being together and having sizzling chemistry, in both the kitchen and the bedroom, Dodin wants to make their union official, but Eugénie needs more convincing before she will agree to be bound by matrimony.

“The Taste of Things” gets cooking from the start, as it opens with a 38-minute sequence of Eugénie preparing a mouth-watering feast under Dodin’s supervision, for him and some distinguished guests. She is aided by a maid, Violette (Galatea Bellugi), and Violette’s niece, Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), a young girl who displays a gift when it comes to the culinary arts. One does not have to be a chef, or even a foodie, to appreciate all this cooking, as it is shot in such a way that the viewer feels like they are watching a masterful artist at work.

“I wanted to find a balance between the love story and the story of the cooking,” explains Anh Hùng in a recent interview with Entertainment Voice. “I relied on this idea that food and love were two sources of sensuality in life. Everything in this movie needed to be about sensuality.”

Tran follows this sequence with a reflective scene of Dodin and Eugénie dining together at twilight by a pond, one that certainly succeeds in being both intimate and rich in flavor. Dodin brings up marriage, but Eugénie is content with the way things are. After all, she would not be able to choose whether or not to open the door when he comes knocking at night if they were wed. Considering the time in which she lives, Eugénie’s views on marriage are understandable, if unconventional, as she would be giving up some of her autonomy if she were to become a wife. Still, there is no denying that there is an enduring love between this pair, with or without a binding piece of paper. Binoche and Magimel, who were a real-life former couple and share a daughter, bring a warmth and familiarity to this onscreen relationship.

Dodin finds it in himself to make one last push to convince Eugénie to marry him, and that is by cooking for her for the first time. This may not sound like a very grand gesture, but he elevates the cooking and presentation of dishes into an art form. One could even call this particular meal intimate, even sensuous. She cannot help but say, yes, and the pair plan for an autumn wedding. It is fitting, Dodin tells friends, as they are both in the autumn of their lives. However, winter comes sooner than expected.

“The Taste of Things” is a touching story of middle-aged love, but what makes it so remarkable is how it presents the culinary world. We all love food, but rarely do most people stop to think about ingredients and what sets an exemplary meal apart from an average one. In this world, even a simple meal prepared before bed can be exquisite if prepared by a truly skilled chef like Eugénie or Dodin. Dodin argues that one cannot be a true gourmand until age 40.

“The Taste of Things” makes the case that Eugénie, Dodin, or someone like them is a true artist, like a painter, poet or musician. Just as was the case for someone like Mozart, a chef can also display their genius at an early age, as we see through the character of Pauline, a girl from a peasant background whose palate is so delicate she can decipher each ingredient down to specific spices in a pot-au-feu Dodin makes. Often, we tend to think that a distinguished understanding of cuisine as being something that is acquired in adulthood, through experience, but few have the ability to appreciate and understand different tastes from a young age, often associating foods with memories.

To Anh Hùng, cooking is an art, because when it comes to using ingredients, the possibilities are infinite. “When you have someone who has a special palate, he can create something new, something different, something surprising. There is no end to it.”

The Taste of Things” releases Feb. 9 in select theaters.