While American ensemble comedies become ever more vulgar and crass, the French continue to produce far superior examples of the genre, and one of the best recent examples is Agnes Jaoul’s refined, amusing and strangely eloquent piece about the peculiar effects of a collision between the commercial and artistic temperaments. Co-writer Jean-Pierre Bacri plays Castella, a narrow- minded industrialist whose nouveau riche contempt for all things cultural is challenged when he attends, quite reluctantly, a performance of Racine’s “Berenice.” Castella is fascinated by lead actress Clara Devaux (Anne Alvaro), whom he immediately engages in her other capacity as an English teacher, and into whose circle he uncomfortably inserts himself. Before long his efforts to ingratiate himself with the members of this group have led him to commission a mural for his factory by a young painter, and estranged him from his interior-decorator wife, who’s concomitantly trying to arrange a new life for her husband’s newly-divorced sister. Meanwhile Moreno (Gerard Lanvin), Castella’s bodyguard (hired because he’s into negotiations with Iranian authorities) enters a relationship with Manie (Jaoul), a free-spirited waitress at the club where the clique of artists congregates, and converses–mostly about women–with the businessman’s chauffeur Deschamps (Alain Chabat), a lonely fellow who’s pining after his girlfriend, currently in America, while also determinedly practicing on his flute.
The lovely thing about “The Taste of Others” is that it treats each and every one of these characters with both affection and a realistic eye for their faults. Castella, for example, is clearly a capitalistic philistine, but at the same time his irresistible attraction to Clara is oddly endearing; Clara, on the other hand, is often unpleasantly superior in her attitudes, but by the end has come to appreciate–even need–her fan’s attention. (After all, what is an actress without an audience, or–the script intimates–a woman without an admirer?) The whole point of the enterprise is that everyone is an individual with peculiar needs and desires, and that human life is really a matter of coming to terms with the distinctive otherness of the people you meet. But this notion isn’t punched across with the heavy-handedness characteristic of Hollywood; instead it’s suggested with the gentleness and subtlety of a good piece of literature.
The cast, including the two writers, follow suit with performances that never descend into clownishness or overstatement, and the behind-the-scenes crew support them with a production of simple elegance. The result is a genial yet insightful comedy-drama, a film of rare grace and honest humor. And, as happens so often in such cases, one can only shudder at the prospect of an English-language remake which will doubtlessly turn it into a boorish caricature of the original–something like an exaggeration of Castella with none of the nuances he possesses here. Don’t wait for the inevitable travesty; take a chance with the subtitles, and savor “The Taste of Others” in its charming pristine state.