‘The Taste of Things’ Director Trần Anh Hùng on Reuniting Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel for His Strikingly Sensuous Love Story

French-Vietnamese filmmaker Trần Anh Hùng understands what the most important things in life are. His latest feature, “The Taste of Things,” which won him Best Director at the 76th Cannes Film Festival and went on to become shortlisted as France’s 96th Academy Awards submission, tells a moving story of food and love from a château in Loire Valley. Co-stars, and former partners, Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel reunite to play talented chef, Eugénie, and celebrated gourmand, Dodin Bouffant. The longtime culinary partners and lovers have spent the past 20 years creating delights together in the kitchen and sharing their lives in a way that was not common in late 19th century France. Dodin wants to make Eugénie his wife, but she prefers her freedom and needs more than a little convincing to give up some of her autonomy. So, in his effort to persuade her to marry him, Dodin creates a lavish feast for his chef.

While “The Taste of Things” is not the first French romance in which the main characters share a love for the culinary arts, what makes this film so special is how Anh Hùng, working with dishes created by three Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire, captures the kitchen and dining scenes in such a way that the food almost pops off the screen. Here, the preparation and appreciation of a meal is an art form. During an in-depth conversation with Entertainment Voice, Anh Hùng dishes with us about working with Binoche and Magimel, how he made his vision and the food come to life, and why chefs are true artists.

What inspired you to make a romantic drama set in the culinary world?

I wanted to make a movie about food for a very long time. The challenge for me was to find a story that could give the cooking a very big part in the movie, because usually when we have that kind of movie, we start with the cooking, and then we forget about it because of the drama, and the cooking becomes less and less in the movie. I wanted to find a balance between the love story and the story of the cooking. 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. I added to it this dimension of harmony, because it is something that is quite rare in movies, to have harmony. 

The opening is this 38-minute long sequence of Eugénie preparing a delicious feast under Dodin’s supervision with help from the maid and apprentice. What were the unique challenges that came with shooting the preparation of such a meal?

The most difficult part is the fact that they cook all the dishes at the same time. It’s very difficult when you show one state of a dish, then you move in the same movement of the camera to the other dish… so that was something that was quite tricky and difficult to do. The other thing is that I wanted the actors to move around the kitchen [during] complex camera movement, so that was also very difficult because I wanted to express the idea of harmony, because Doudin and Eugénie, they used to work together for a long time, so there was this sense of harmony in the way they worked together, and I wanted the audience to feel it.

Did you already have some of the dishes in mind when writing the screenplay, or did that come later?

Oh, no, it came very late in the process… The idea was to have all the dishes be right for the period, the end of the 19th century. The other thing is, they needed to reveal something interesting about the process of cooking. For instance, when you see that you need to boil two chickens to make the broth so that you can cook the chicken that you are going to eat, that is something that is quite interesting. And, seeing, for instance, lettuce put in the boiling water, this was something quite impressive for me, a salad put in boiling water, because usually with the salad, we need it fresh here… All this was quite interesting. When I worked with [gastronomic director] Pierre Gagnaire, who is a great chef, that was something we talked about all the time, if it’s interesting or not. That was how, slowly, we came up with this menu for the movie.  

Tell us about working with Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel. Do you think their own romantic history brought an extra dimension to the film?

Frankly, I don’t know, because I was afraid of the relationship, because I knew that when they split, it was not on good terms. They didn’t talk to each other for 20 years… so it was something that was quite scary for me. Juliette was there at the beginning, but when I told her that I would like to have Benoît, she doubted that it could work. All this was quite scary. But at the end of the process, I showed the script to Benoît and asked him if he would like to be in the movie, knowing that he would be [working with Binoche]. And, he said, “yes,” after reading the script. I told Juliette and she was quite doubtful of all this. So, the first day of the shoot, it was a little bit difficult, but then after a week of shooting everything was really fine.

I’m the kind of director that doesn’t want to exploit the private sides of the actors. All I need is some expressivity on the screen. If this expressivity is right for the feeling, for the emotion, then it was enough for me. Of course, Benoît and Juliet, maybe they found something inside of them because of their relationship, and then gave me something from the truth of their emotions.

Pauline, who becomes Dodin’s apprentice, has this extremely delicate palate and exhibits a gift for the culinary arts from the start. Do you believe the sort of talent some great chefs have is something they’re born with?

Oh, yes. I think so. They’re not born with it, but their education of taste came very early. It builds your memory of the taste. It doesn’t need to [involve] thinking. It’s something that is immediate. Your memory of something that you ate very young, at an age when you were really happy and you ate something that you liked, this will form your palate. I think that a great chef is someone who has a special palate to analyze all the different tastes, and then he could find a way to combine them differently, and then he would create something new. That’s why we can say that cooking is an art, because it is infinite. 

Your wife, Trần Nữ Yên Khê, was the costume designer for “The Taste of Things,” and has also acted in your previous films. Did working with Trần help you better understand the bond between Eugénie and Dodin?

Oh, yeah. I think that, from the beginning, the idea of this love story in the movie between Dodin and Eugénie, of course, it was inspired by my own story, because I’ve lived with Yên Khê for a very long time, more than 30 years. We know each other very well, and we really enjoy working together, because she is also an artist. She’s a painter and a sculptor, and when she’s working, I act as her, her assistant, working with her. We always talk about everything related to aesthetics. It’s something that is quite interesting, and I think that it’s also somehow my story with her. 

What’s next for you?

I would like to make a movie about Buddha, about one year in his life. It’s quite interesting because we can see that we don’t really have [a drive] to change the world… It’s almost impossible. What Buddhism says is that you can improve yourself as a human being. For instance, in this movie, “The Taste of Things,” we see that somehow, Eugénie, she would like to be free. She would like to be a modern woman. She doesn’t want to be a wife, but she would like to have a profession as a cook, and to be recognized for her talent. At the same time, in front of her, she has someone who can help in this process by being nice, being good to her. But she has to have this fight for her freedom. Somehow, on the male side, you can also try to be a better human being. It’s very Buddhist thinking.

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