Wednesday, February 7, 2024

When food is more than just a meal

   It's nearly impossible not to get caught up in the images of haute cuisine that help define The Taste of Things, an elegant beauty of a film from Vietnamese French director Tran Anh Hung
   Stimulated appetites aside, Tran's movie, based on a 1924 novel by Marcel Rouff, is as much about the intimacies of a long-standing relationship as it is about the meals that are alluringly photographed by cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg.
   Tran creates an insular world inhabited by a small group of epicures who visit chef Dodin Bouffant (Benoit Magimel) to savor his subtly flavored creations. Juliette Binoche portrays Eugenie, the cook who lives and works in Dodin's house and sometimes sleeps with him.
  The movie opens in the bustle of a 19th century kitchen where cray fish and quenelles are being prepared along with a lion of veal. The dialogue is minimal, task-related, and warm. The atmosphere is enriched with the aromas we imagine to be emanating from Eugenie's stove, a flat surface heated by burning coals.  
   Preparation marked by diligence dominates the early scenes. Roles in the kitchen have been developed and refined during the course of the 20 years in which Dodin and Eugenie have collaborated.
   So what's all this labor for? Dodin has built a reputation as a chef of some renown; he creates meals the devoted men who gather at his home, sometimes covering their heads with napkins so that they can concentrate on the aromas of a newly served dish. 
   Despite its intensely narrow focus, the movie never feels pinched. Violette (Galatea Bellugi) works as Eugenie's assistant. A girl (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire) hopes to benefit from Dodin's tutelage, perhaps becoming his apprentice. When it comes to food, she's a bit of a savant, able to identify almost all the ingredients in a complex dish at first taste.
   All of this could have been the subject of a satire about effete bourgeois snobs whose lives have narrowed to a squint, 19the century aesthetes who have blinded themselves to the rest of life. Tran (The Scent of Green Papaya) has no such inclinations.
   It's possible to view the movie’s meals as stand-ins for art or what it takes to produce a great collaborative work, something on the order of an important director who has developed an essential relationship with a favored cinematographer. 
   The title has significance. It seems crude to refer to the consumption of this food as "eating." It's more about tasting and dazzling the senses in the pursuit of pleasures available only to those with enough cultivation and refinement to appreciate each bite.
   If The Taste of Things reveals character, it does so more through suggestion and quiet conversation than declarations.
    Dodin isn't an autocrat of the kitchen. His feelings for Eugenie are complicated but sincere. Fair to say he loves her. Perhaps he wants to marry Eugenie to cement her presence in his household, but he's also a tender man who respects the skills on which he relies.
    When Eugenie becomes ill, Dodin cooks for her, serving the meal in the dining room where the men usually gather, a loving act of role reversal.
  For her part, Eugenie is skillful, independent, and sound of judgement. Her current arrangement allows her to determine when the door to her bedroom will open to Dodin. She'd rather be a cook than a wife because she knows that marriage will restrain her freedom, substituting duty for choice.
  Plot developments emerge during a movie in which small gestures prevail. Better to discover them in a theater than in a review.
  The Taste of Things tells a story about two people who are together but separate, in other words, a relationship.  Tran not only allows his characters fully to inhabit their environment. He treats them with the respect their dedication to excellence has earned.
   Like the meals we see, The Taste of Things has been assembled with taste, balance, and artistry. 

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