A Ghost Story
By Chris Wisniewski
The Taste of Things (The Pot au Feu)
Dir. Tran Anh Hung, France, IFC Films
To love the culinary arts, one must embrace ephemerality. Spring asparagus will fall out of season long before the harvest of late summer’s corn; the autumnal apple’s ascendency dawns after most stone fruits have lost their sweetness. Hours or days spent prepping and cooking culminate in a meal that is, at best, enjoyed for just a few hours. All that remains are memories. A talented chef might manage a near perfect facsimile of a dish, but it’s never possible to achieve a true resurrection: a certain set of ingredients, grown and gathered in just such a way at just such a time, handled by a particular set of hands in a specific place—a meal, like a person, exists only once and always in the present.
The specter of ephemerality hangs over Tran Anh Hung’s exquisitely beautiful and moving The Taste of Things, a movie that is simultaneously about food in every possible sense and also not at all, one that treats the acts of cooking and eating with reverence while recognizing in them an entry point to something more profound. But it does so without ever turning these acts into metaphor, instead recognizing them as deeply embedded in human experience.
Based on a 1924 novel by Marcel Rouff, the film reveals its transporting awareness of the physical and spiritual dimensions of the epicurean from its start. The year is 1885, and the famed chef Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel) prepares a multi-course meal with Eugénie (Juliette Binoche), whom we later learn has been his cooking partner and sometimes-lover for two decades. Over the course of a sequence that stretches to more than half an hour, they calmly and efficiently braise turbot and lettuces, prepare a sinful vol-au-vent, and produce a perfect baked Alaska with the help of their housemaid Violette (Galatea Bellugi) and her young niece, Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire). Dodin and Eugénie are meeting Pauline for the first time, and for them, the true revelation of this meal is the girl’s precocity. Dodin quizzes her on the ingredients of a sauce, and she rattles off most, though not all, of the components (onions, smoked bacon, fennel…) like a professional adult chef with a seasoned—if not fully mature—palate; Eugénie watches her eat the finished dishes and marvels as her cooking moves the child nearly to tears. The joy of this riveting opening sequence lies in how Tran plies his craft in depicting Dodin’s and Eugénie’s. It is a marvel to watch his fluid, searching camera linger on his actors as they tend to the food with studied confidence, maneuvering around the kitchen briskly but without betraying lack of control. Their knowing reactions to Pauline reflect a self-awareness of the skills they’ve honed and the techniques they’ve mastered, along with the spark of excitement a mature craftsperson might have in discovering the potential of a young person who might become a worthy mentee.
The dazzling opening set-piece functions almost as a prologue. After allowing his viewers and their onscreen surrogates to luxuriate in Dodin and Eugénie’s food, Tran introduces the film’s two central narrative threads. In the first, Dodin is invited to dine at a meal prepared by the crown prince of Eurasia. A grueling endurance test of gut-busting multi-course decadence, the crown prince’s dinner misses nearly every mark for Dodin. It functions as a performative exercise in culinary indulgence, lacking perspective, clarity, and, by extension, soul. Dodin immediately plots a rejoinder: he will counter the crown prince’s extravagance with a meal built around pot au feu, a simple stew that’s nourished his humble French country-men and -women for generations, an ordinary meal elevated to a triumph.
The stew functions as something of a red herring. To those expecting the movie to play as a Babette’s Feast retread with a dash of Top Chef World All-Stars, Tran serves up something as unexpected as Dodin’s choice of a rustic dish as a meal fit for a crown prince. The pot au feu, in Tran’s movie, is less a vehicle for Dodin’s one-upmanship than a reminder of the beauty of the mundane. An everyday dish done well can be transcendent, and so, too, can an everyday emotion, when felt genuinely and without artifice. The film, in making this case, sets the stage for its second major plot thread, the love story that lies at its heart, one built around two middle-aged characters who know one another as well as they know themselves and whose relationship is set on a foundation of mutual respect and shared history. When Dodin asks Eugénie if he might knock on her door one evening, we understand he’s asked this question many times. This is also true when he asks her for her hand in marriage. She permits him to knock on her door but declines his proposal, and her logic in doing so reveals Eugénie’s sense of her own worth and the respect she demands of Dodin. Were she to submit to the role of wife in 19th-century France, she conjectures, she might lose the autonomy to refuse Dodin’s late-night knock. She doesn’t reject his company—on the contrary—but rather the act of submission.
To woo her, Dodin must convince Eugénie that he wants her as a partner and not simply as a “wife.” He makes his case the only way he knows how, through his food, and so follows Tran’s second culinary set-piece, one that more than equals the first. Magimel and Binoche are marvelous throughout the film but never more so than in this sequence, which soars on their effortless chemistry. (It is perhaps worth noting that the two actors were partners for a time and share a child). This is especially true of Binoche, one of our greatest living actors and one who, if possible, may have become a warmer and even more luminous performer with age. As her Eugénie savors Didot’s meal, she wordlessly conveys the wonder of a person who receives the greatest gift a person can give—that of themselves—and accepts it with graciousness and care.
Of course, the meal ends, and the seasons pass. The perfect evening of oysters, caviar, and chicken between Eugénie and Didot fades to memory. It is impossible to describe this remarkable film’s scope and effect, though, without nodding (hopefully without explicit spoilers) to its closing minutes. Before The Taste of Things concludes, Tran has one more bravura cinematic gesture left in him, lifted brilliantly from the great Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi. By evoking a famous shot from Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, albeit while inverting its logic, Tran reveals that his movie, like Mizoguchi’s, is finally a ghost story, and it is both heartbreaking and generous in its pure emotional truth. Time flows inexorably forward. Eugénie and Didot will both be forgotten and replaced one day by someone like Pauline, who herself will one day pass to nothingness. Their individual lives though, like ours, are haunted by the tender memories of the meals, the emotions, and the love that have given them meaning. The moments slip away, but Tran’s characters take them with them as they carry on, the echoes of the past forever resonating in their forever present.