.The Taste of Things

The Taste of Things plates tantalizing meals for the senses

Sunshine filters through the garden windows in Dodin Bouffant’s kitchen, suffusing the space with golden light and golden shadows. Most of the dramatic action in Anh Hung Tran’s The Taste of Things emanates from that luminous kitchen, and from there into the rest of the house. 

Before Dodin (Benoît Magimel), a renowned chef, begins to prepare a meal there for a few of his gourmand friends, the camera finds his live-in cook’s hands pulling vegetables out of the earth. Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) is a late 19th-century goddess of the hearth. She is the source and engine of all that radiant light. 

The film’s better, original title—La passion de Dodin Bouffant—translates as The Passion of Dodin Bouffant, which is twofold. He is as passionately in love with Eugénie as he is with the culinary arts. They are an unmarried, middle aged Adam and Eve who have cast away the dual fig leaves of shame and convention. 

Dodin and Eugénie take turns wooing each other with elegant, sophisticated dishes. They’re not competing with each other to see who can make the best meal. They’re simply dedicated to firing up each other’s senses. Their taste buds are the gateway to every other known sensual pleasure.

After Eugénie gathers produce from the garden, she arrives in the kitchen ready to cook with Dodin. For over a quarter of an hour, Tran boldly focuses the camera on her, Dodin and the kitchen maid Violette (Galatéa Bellugi) as they maneuver ingredients and giant copper pots on stovetops, into ovens and around each other. At first, the chopping and cutting and steaming and stewing recalls the reality of a TV cooking show. But all of those antiseptic kitchens lack the gravity of Binoche’s presence.

The rhythm of this opening scene is choreographed with a quiet, calm intensity. Speech is limited to cooking instructions, pressing requests for parsley or paprika. Dodin and Eugénie take a religious approach to the making of each course of the meal, from the briny flavors of the bubbling fish stock to the perfectly browned crust of a puff pastry. They’re united in their efforts to please Dodin’s friends.

As the diners gather around the table—a group of men dressed in black from head to toe—they look like they’ve just stepped out of a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec. Even though Dodin and his guests invite Eugénie to join them, she stays in the kitchen until she flambés the final dish, an omelette norvégienne or baked Alaska. None of the guests are chefs but they are grateful connoisseurs of Eugénie’s talents. Each time they take a bite of her food, they open their eyes with astonishment. 

During the first half of the film, Dodin proposes the idea of marriage to Eugénie more than once but faces her ongoing resistance. She states her feelings to him frankly. As their relationship stands, Eugénie has her own bedroom, which she can keep open and unlocked for him, when she chooses to do so. Should Eugénie become Dodin’s wife then, she fears, her autonomy will be taken away from her. In the life they’ve created together, they’ve achieved an idyllic domestic harmony. Eugénie rightly questions the need to change it.

Dodin embarks on a different task to convince her to marry him. He exiles Eugénie from the kitchen one evening in order to seduce her with a series of playfully inventive dishes. When she’s delighted by a mouthful of caviar, Dodin smiles like the cat who ate the canary. Her pleasure provides him with a sense of purpose and joy. Later that night when he opens her bedroom door, Eugénie, anticipating his arrival, has arranged her naked body in the shape of the sumptuous poached pear he’d made for her dessert. He receives an affirmative reply at last.  

But The Taste of Things is, after all, a Juliette Binoche film. From Three Colours: Blue to Let the Sunshine In, the actress carries an air of tragedy around her neck like a sheer gossamer scarf. 

While walking through their orchard, Eugénie collapses and rests against a fruit tree. Once she’s recovered she dismisses her sudden illness and then continues to cook meals for Dodin. Preparing something as simple as an omelet is the purest expression of her devotion and love. After they marry, she asks her husband if she is his wife or his cook. Eugénie sighs with relief when Dodin gives her the correct answer.   

The Taste of Things now showing at AMC and Cinemark theaters in San Jose.

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