Review: The Taste of Things Is a Soft, Sumptuous Celebration of French Culinary Culture

The Taste of Things is, by all accounts, a film tailor-made for me—and maybe you, too. A French period romance centered on the country's rich culinary history starring the great Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel? Say less.

Actually, there is quite a bit to say about Tran Anh Hung's sumptuous film, which is based on the novel by Marcel Rouff, from the on-screen chemistry of its stars (who were off-screen partners 20 years ago) to the absolutely magical cooking scenes that are something akin to a dance sequence. Magimel is Dodin Bouffant, an intellectual and gourmand who delights in gathering like-minded friends at his country estate where he and they can discuss, debate and eventually taste all the latest, most daring and noteworthy foods and culinary trends of the day. His passion is bolstered by Eugénie (Binoche), his trusted friend and live-in chef, a woman who is much more than an employee; though they share separate rooms and aren't married, he is madly in love with her, and she, in her own quiet way, is with him. Their love language is food.

The current gossip among Bouffant and his crew is an upcoming dinner hosted for a visiting prince, one that the men find garish and unseemly with its exotic ingredients and overlong courses. The men volley their disdain and judgment as if engaged in a political debate, so invested are they (and we) in what all this means for the world today. In the meantime, Eugénie is hard at work in the kitchen creating exceptional plates of freshly seared meats, perfectly prepared vegetables and flavors that practically permeate the screen. Indeed, Tran and cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg create something exceptional as they capture these meals being made, from the camera sweeping from pan to plate and back again to the sizzling and crackling of the fires and pans used in the making. Short of a food documentary, it is some of the most remarkable filming of food and cooking in memory.

Tran carries this beauty and gentleness into the relationships between the film's central characters. Certainly the romance and rapport between Bouffant and Eugénie is soft and respectful; the two clearly have great admiration for each other, both professionally and intimately. But this extends to others in the narrative as well, including young Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), a kitchen assistant who Eugénie recognizes to have a great natural aptitude for cooking. She goes to Pauline's parents to suggest they allow her to study under her in the kitchen, and though she feels strongly about the girl's prospects, the conversation is never contentious or difficult.

It's a tender, gauzy world Bouffant and Eugénie live in; though it's not one without its challenges and heartache, the pair nevertheless find in food a way to treat all ills, celebrate all milestones, understand all conflicts. In their world (and one I wouldn't mind visiting), well-made food—and the time and care it takes to create it—is not a chore or an indulgence. It is a sign of appreciation and respect, a way to acknowledge all that we are blessed with for sustenance. Here, gathering around food is a ritual, almost ceremonial, and The Taste of Things invites everyone to the table.

The Taste of Things is now playing in select theaters.

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Lisa Trifone