In France, possessing a hearty appetite is considered not just a quality but almost a heroic trait. The act of eating transcends mere sustenance; it engages all the senses. From the enticing aroma of a well-prepared dish to the sizzle of a steak and the crave-inducing crunch of a baguette, indulging in the various sensory dimensions of a delightful French meal is akin to expressing a refined artistic judgment.
Tran Anh Hung’s “The Taste of Things,” a 19th-century French romance, draws power from this understanding of food’s transcendence. Recently released in theaters in France and scheduled for a screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on Nov. 10, the film revolves around Dodin (Benoît Magimel), a distinguished gourmand, and his exceptionally talented chef, Eugénie (Juliette Binoche). Living in the idyllic French countryside, they collaborate on creating lavish meals for themselves and Dodin’s circle of food enthusiasts. Their lives orbit entirely around the cultivation and crafting of these sumptuous dishes, a focus emphasized through extensive, intricate cooking scenes.
Having witnessed “The Taste of Things” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the audience’s audible delight echoed through the theater, reminiscent of the reactions to iconic artistic experiences. The joy derived from savoring a delicious meal, or even just witnessing its preparation on a grand screen, elicits a unique pleasure beyond the confines of logic or reason.
French reviews of the film have been mixed. Some, like Clarisse Fabre of Le Monde, found its blissful atmosphere and minimal dramatic tension perplexing and tedious. Others, like Olivier Lamm of Libération, noted that beyond its food-porn allure, the film explores themes of the encroachment of junk food and globalization on French culinary standards.
France takes immense pride in its rich gastronomic tradition and the historical regulation of the quality and authenticity of its wines and produce. The film industry in France, aligning with this cultural pride, often embraces narratives centered around gastronomy. This year, “The Taste of Things” was chosen as the French submission for the Oscar’s best international film category, sparking objections from critics who argued that Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winner, “Anatomy of a Fall,” was overlooked, possibly due to the political nature of her Cannes acceptance speech.
The portrayal of French devotion to culinary arts has become a bit of an onscreen cliché, with Hollywood often relying on stereotypically French settings in films like “Ratatouille” and “Chocolat.” However, more nuanced explorations of the intersection between politics and fine dining, such as the 1956 French classic “La Traversée de Paris,” offer a more rewarding and complex narrative. In this film, set in Nazi-occupied Paris, the protagonists navigate the challenges of transporting contraband pork, highlighting how political instability affects access to revered foodstuffs and the very spirit of those dedicated to the art of eating.
Similarly, films like the 1987 Danish production “Babette’s Feast” underscore the transformative power of culinary art. Forced to flee Paris during the Paris Commune, Babette, a French chef, finds refuge in a Danish countryside household. Her extravagant multicourse dinner for the townspeople not only astonishes the guests but also elevates her to an emissary of the sublime, disrupting the perceived reality of her Danish friends.
Yet, amid the celebration of fine dining, questions arise about its bourgeois nature. Films like Luis Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and Marco Ferreri’s “La Grande Bouffe” explore the absurdities of dinner scenes and link the pleasure of eating to consumerist society and the excesses of the leisure class. Ferreri’s film, in particular, serves as a critical commentary on the glorification of tunnel-vision foodies.
Adapted from Marcel Rouff’s 1961 novel “The Passionate Epicure,” which draws inspiration from Brillat-Savarin’s “The Physiology of Taste,” “The Taste of Things” captures Brillat-Savarin’s passion for food as a deeply personal experience. Hung’s film portrays this passion with hypnotic warmth, evoking a sense memory of intimacy akin to being held tight or savoring a loved one’s scent. In those moments, nothing else seems to matter.