Eat Up

The Taste of Things (2023)

image: Stéphanie Branchu/IFC Films

On Valentine’s Day this year, I made a pork belly stew from scratch—chopping the once-frozen slab of pig meat into chewable pieces, boiling in water with aromatics, draining and re-cooking in a sweet and savory sauce. The process took nearly three hours: chopping, peeling, mincing, measuring, straining, stirring. The meal was served without much ceremony, and we ate it in probably less than 20 minutes. All that work—there and then gone, belly into belly.

Tran Anh Hung’s new film, The Taste of Things, is about cooking—as gesture, as labor, as love, as skill. The film stars real-life exes Benoît Magimel and Juliette Binoche as Dodin and Eugénie, a gourmand and a cook, respectively, though those roles—like many between a husband and a wife—are flexible, changeable. Only Dodin and Eugénie are not husband and wife, or at least, not husband and wife yet. Dodin pursues Eugénie with steadfast desire; Eugénie rebukes or assuages depending on her mood. The film is less things, more taste: largely plotless, long-winded, drifting through anecdotes and dinner like a group of friends out to eat. One of them is dying, maybe, but also who isn’t? It is the late 19th century and the grass won’t ever be half as green as it was then.

Dodin and his friends enjoy leisurely dinners as Eugénie and kitchen assistant and/or servant Violette (Galatéa Bellugi) work hard on the meals themselves in the back of the house, down in the basement. They do not join the men. Eugénie likes her space. She is solitary, wise, and capable. She loves Dodin not because he desires her, but because he respects her. It’s when he’s desiring her, in fact, that she seems to love him least (but loves him all the same). Binoche brings a trademark sensuality to the role. It’s not clear how Eugénie and Dodin began their relationship, professional or otherwise; The Taste of Things suggests it’s always been like that. Magimel, on the other hand, has an air of quiet desperation. There is a unique, voyeuristic thrill to watching two exes together on screen, wondering what gestures or eye contact might be authentic. In a world where we beg and clamor for actors to have a shred of chemistry, here’s a duo with chemistry for days—years!—whose lust, heartbreak, and stoic resolve pulse through every scene.

The food is what brings us to the table, so to speak, and the food here is simply divine: vol-au-vent, grilled lamb, hand-churned ice cream, omelets galore. I started laughing some twenty minutes into the movie when an obscure-shaped food is placed into an equally obscure-shaped pan. Whatever they need, Dodin and Eugénie have truly thought of everything. I wondered if their kitchen might function a little like my own, full of stray cuts or burns or fuck-ups. But it’s not that kind of movie. The food goes according to recipe. At one point, it takes Dodin all of two tries to get a wafer right. It took me six just to figure out caramel.

To be clear: The Taste of Things is silly. It is light, even with its death subplot, evasive towards the ugliness of real death in favor of reel death. Dying is not painful here; it is fainting and clutching one’s forehead. The movie is more in line with something like, say, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (2018) or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011). The kitchen is even more enviable than in a Nancy Meyers movie (which is saying a lot) but the gist is the same. Men and women, desire and appetite. The story is wonderful to watch when the food is being prepared, but much less wonderful to watch the rest of the time. There is a frustrating haze to it, like a greasy fingerprint over a glasses lens. This is a fantasy, enviable and elusive. The gardens stretch on: orange carrots, leafy lettuce, bundles of fresh-picked herbs. I know it smells crazy in there (endorsement). 

A friend who saw the film months before I did wrote something to the effect of, “I know some people derive a sort of cinematic ecstasy from long, long sequences of food being prepared,” and it’s good that people do—I count myself among them—because without those sequences, there would be little to latch onto in The Taste of Things. The food is where we see this relationship bloom, like red pepper flakes simmering in hot oil. The gerunds (stirring, whisking, pressing, churning) all feel a little more manageable when done together. When Dodin and Eugénie sit for their meals, their dialogues are didactic and annoyingly straightforward. Maybe they aren’t great talkers. Maybe they know that’s not where their love swells. Fine, then back to the kitchen. 

There are technical slights I found grating amidst all the beauty—bizarre edits, strange framing, ominous backlighting. I couldn’t tell if Hung was trying to disrupt the comfort of his film or if the world was not meant to be unpredictable, strange. For all the care that went into his characters’ cooking and menu preparations, the other elements of the film often felt ignored, left on the countertop to go bad overnight. There is plenty lovely about the film, however, and even with my irritation, I left in a better mood than when I came into the theater. Not only good, but satisfied. I felt excited to do it again, by which I mean cook and eat, rather than rewatch The Taste of Things. I decided, stepping out into the cold, that I would make dinner on an otherwise unplanned, forthcoming Valentine’s Day. The details, the menu—that could all come later. I thought of simmering fat and sharp garlic. I thought of cheeks flushed with steam. I thought of plunging my fingers into a salt cellar, drizzling salt over brown broth. The fantasy was as good as the real thing, if not better: I wouldn’t have to do the dishes afterwards.