THE TASTE OF THINGS (La Passion de Dodin Bouffant)

Producer: Olivier Delbosc   Director: Tràn Anh Hùng  Screenwriter: Tràn Anh Hùng   Cast: Juliette Binoche, Benoit Magimel, Emmanuel Salinger, Patrick D’Assumçao, Galatea Bellugi, Jan Hammenecker, Frédéric Fisbach, Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire, Jean-Marc Roulot, Yannik Landrein, Sarah Adler and Mhamed Arezki     Distributor: IFC Films   

Grade: B+

In the long, carefully choreographed sequence that opens Tràn Anh Hùng “The Taste of Things,” we watch as gourmand Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel), his cook Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant Violette (Galatea Bellugi) prepare an elaborate meal.  Following them closely, and occasionally called upon to help, is a young girl named Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), Violette’s niece, who’s at one point invited by Bouffant to savor a complicated sauce and enumerate all the ingredients she detects in it.  He’s amazed by her ability.

In a way viewers of the film are asked to perform a similar feat in cinematic terms—to perceive the narrative’s layers and nuances, which are subtle and interconnected.  This is not a film that tells you everything in blunt terms; like the dishes we see being prepared and consumed in it, it conveys its meaning in elusive, fragile terms, inviting one to appreciate its complexity.  Life, it suggests—and a work of art that depicts it—are as beautiful and ephemeral as a meal we prepare and then eat.

Marcel Rouff created Bouffant in his novel “La vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet,” which was published in 1924 though written some years earlier.  But the character was based on a real person, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1825), who wrote “Physiologie du goût, ou méditations de gastronomie transcendante” almost precisely a century earlier.  Now a hundred years after Rouff’s book, Hùng offers an elegant adaptation of it, “La Passion de Dodin Bouffant,” Englished first as “The Pot-au-Feu,” after a traditional French beef stew, but now under its current title.

By any name, it’s a remarkable tale of intertwined loves—love of extraordinary food, combined with love for the person whose genius creates it.  Bouffant may have the meals served to his coterie of local gourmets (Emmanuel Salinger, Patrick D’Assumçao, Jan Hammenecke and Frédéric Fisbach), but while he revels in the appreciative camaraderie of their circle, it’s his attachment to Eugénie that dominates his emotional life.  Though they have separate bedrooms, he often visits her at night, though only when she allows it.  And she stubbornly resists his proposals of marriage, preferring to keep things as they are.

Eugénie’s attitude about her calling is expressed in another way as well.  Though invited by Bouffant’s circle to join them at the meals she’s prepared, she refuses, saying that she converses with them through the dishes she prepares—and, it’s suggested, through the organization of the meals, each prepared with fastidious care in order and balance.  When Bouffant is invited to a dinner at the residence of the visiting Prince of Eurasia (Mhamed Arezki), he returns and complains to his friends of how slapdash the meal was, a succession of elaborate dishes served without concern for the whole.  He contemplates serving the Prince a simple beef stew when he reciprocates with an invitation.

The film’s crisis comes when Eugénie begins suffering from fainting spells that Dr. Rabaz (Salinger) cannot explain.  She’s confined to her room, and Bouffant cooks for her—proof of his love, topped off by another proposal.  This time she accepts, and the couple host an elaborate outdoor reception to celebrate.  But Eugénie’s remission is brief, and when she dies Bouffant is inconsolable.  His friends eventually encourage him to audition new cooks, but all prove unable to meet his primary requirement, and though he agrees, with the concurrence of her initially reluctant parents (Yannick Landrein and Sarah Adler), to Pauline’s plea to be taken on as a student, the issue of a new chef remains unresolved until word arrives of a promising candidate and Bouffant rushes out to interview her.

The meals are extraordinary in “The Taste of Things”—each dish shown is an extraordinary sight, and the sequences of their preparation are even more remarkable.  But as visually astonishing as they are, this is not one of those movies that revels in the opulence of the food; indeed, if anything the images emphasize the rustic quality of place and ingredients.  The focus remains on the bond between Bouffant and Eugénie, which is expressed in, but not restricted to, their common love of cooking.

Binoche and Magimel capture their characters’ mutual respect and affection effortlessly, though one imagines their facility in the kitchen scenes took a great deal of rehearsal.  Save for the ethereal Chagneau-Ravoire, the supporting cast is more acceptable than outstanding, but the crafts team (production designer Toma Baquéni, art director and costumer Tran Nu Yên Khê and cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg) make outstanding contributions, fashioning a beautifully imagined vision of late nineteenth-century rural France; and one should certainly not overlook the expertise of gastronomic manager Pierre Gagnaire and culinary advisor Michel Nave.  Mario Battistel’s unhurried editing allows one to savor both the food and the fine performances.

“The Taste of Things” is a refined, exquisitely appointed, quite moving adaptation of Rouff’s century-old novel of interconnected loves and losses.