Tran Anh Hung is a lyric poet of community.
The sixty-one-year-old Vietnamese French filmmaker has made only a few features, notably “Cyclo” (1996), the bustling town-within-city portrait of late twentieth-century Hanoi; the cloister of a privileged tropical childhood in “The Scent Of Green Papaya” (1994) and now the nineteenth-century period work of gustatory contentment, “The Taste of Things” (also known in France as “Pot au feu”; the title indicates we’re in for “La passion de Dodin Bouffant”).
Set at a sun-suffused château in Anjou in 1885, “The Taste of Things,” France’s submission to this year’s Oscars as best international film, follows Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel) and his cook and lover Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) at a moment when Bouffant wants to unite their long and loving gastronomic history with an official one as well. He sets himself a challenge to impress this time-weary but day-practiced expert: he will cook for her instead.
There’s not a hint of traditional plot until about twenty minutes into his genteel but impassioned romance, and that challenge is already set for the viewer: this day, Eugénie has prepared a teeming meal for Dodin and five of his friends (who will the next day tuck into a nearby vintner’s preparation of the taboo ortolan), and we learn about the home, her kitchen, the craft, intense and sensual, we watch ingredients from garden to counter to pan to stew, accompanied only by the music of exquisite sound: the crunch of bite of a just-uprooted vegetable, the low of a nearby cow, specific shoes crossing a specific wooden floor, the light sluice of the insides of a fish, the tickle of earth in a bath, or at boil alongside fat white eggs in copper pans, so many copper pans!
There are a couple of girls who are learning from Eugénie, but it is mostly her apparently effortless exertion, this meal of delicacy and immensity that Hung and his cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg and editor Mario Battistel convey in lightly swooping, beautifully framed camera movements: whomever she is making food for—we have only hints at first—it’s ordinary, everyday, quotidian, magnificent. The camera in motion is less adrift than eager, quicksilver, palate perked. The light, too, is exquisite: dawn, then sunstruck midday, then dusk and the gloaming of night: all effortlessly pass. The process, of course, is industrial but it comes from the fingertips and races to the reaches of the brain. You can follow the steps almost as a tutorial, each little truc of the trade, but why? The splendid calm moves forward, like the sound of winches and chains playing off a wooden bucket as water is drawn from the well. Each frame could be a painting, but also a judicious contemplation of the mise-en-scène of sound, of enveloping succulence.
There is no score, per se, just those sounds, the gentle tink of a certain small spoon inside one of the many, so many, copper pots. Music would be superfluous in this symphony of touch and taste and unhurried heaven. The sound is the pulse of the process, of intense labor turned to immediate, sense-simmering result.
The seer of cuisine Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin inspired “The Taste Of Things.” Brillat-Savarin, says the filmmaker in the press notes, “was the first to write a book about the philosophy of gastronomy. A marvelous book you absolutely must read. We learn how at a given moment in time, France put order into gastronomy. It was the French who decided that a dish should be prepared in one way and not another. It was the French who decided how to set a table, what silverware and which glasses to use with each dish. And it was the French who advocated marrying flavors by complementing this dish with this or that wine. France has such a rich and varied terroir. It is no coincidence that French gastronomy remains the top-ranked in the world.”
The pace accelerates as the young girl that Eugénie hopes will apprentice sounds the ingredients she savors, and Hung cuts back as that particular flavor is introduced into the mix, not suspense but succulence and she uncannily intuits the states of practical but impracticable magic. Dodin tells his gathering of friends of one dish—baked Alaska!—that is “not a miracle, but merely a scientific reaction.”
Birds chirp, the stark cry of a peacock sounds behind the garden, just beyond the French doors, the large windows with open shutters. This is a place of privilege, a seat of decadence, but also one of elegance and joy, where a community creates, then shares what it has made.
The claque clicks their clever words, such as “The discovery of a new dish brings more joy to humanity than the discovery of a new star” and “Marriage is a dinner that begins with dessert.” Invited by a traveling prince to survey his chef’s work, one of the troupe tells Eugénie afterward that the show had been “abundant and rich, but [with] no light or clarity. No air, no logic, no line. Custom, but not rules. A parade, but no organization. A meal marked with flaws in the succession of flavors and textures.” (This nineteenth-century man could well be criticizing products soon to issue from the new art of cinema.)
“What is art other than an ability to enjoy?” asks Hung in the press notes. “Gastronomy focuses on a sense foreign to the other arts: taste. A gastronomic artist can differentiate between flavors that we are unable to distinguish so precisely; to blend, measure, balance flavors, scents, textures, consistencies and temperatures.” Yes, the filmmaker insists, “It is a science, like the cinema… And so, we hear Dodin explain how and why egg whites beaten in a certain way will conserve the frostiness of ice cream in a dessert.”
The images are beautiful in light and motion of figures, and choices made of what to foreground and what to background, what to share in closest of close-ups. But this most savory of pictures comes back to sound, a separate, and brain-tickling sensation. “All those elements that our characters manipulate (raw and cooked meat, vegetables, feathers, fat, butter, earth, water, fire, wood, metal) naturally did away with the need for any music in the make-up of the film. All that material reality is so compellingly expressive, it firmly anchors our characters in daily life,” Hung writes. “Music would have undermined that. There was careful, inventive work on the soundtrack. I often tell my collaborators that they are providing the aroma too.”
“The Taste Of Things” opens in theaters near Valentine’s Day.