Tuesday, February 13, 2024

For Valentine’s Day and Beyond . . .”The Taste of Things”

Anatomy of a Fall is one of ten films in the running for the Best Picture Oscar.  This twisty courtroom drama, filmed in French, also copped four other nominations, including Best Director (Justine Triet), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress (Sandra Hüller, also mesmerizing as the Nazi wife in The Zone of Interest). One nomination that has eluded Anatomy of a Fall is for Best International Feature. According to Academy rules, the candidates for this foreign-language category must be nominated by their nation of origin, and no more than one nominee per country is permitted. The film folks of France, in their wisdom, chose not to so honor the very impressive Anatomy of a Fall. Instead they backed a romantic drama that is just now making the rounds in the U.S. Its English-language title is The Taste of Things.

 If you watch The Taste of Things,  you’ll understand why it won the French seal of approval. It stars, first of all, the luminous Juliette Binoche, sometimes in the altogether. And it focuses on two subjects beloved by the French populace: l’amour and la cuisine. This story of a circle of gourmands wining and dining in the nineteenth-century French countryside is full of witty chat about the joys of food, about how it would be even more exciting to develop a brand-new dish than to discover a brand-new planet. Food, in this narrative, comes before everything, even sex: marriage is wittily described as dinner and then dessert. For these characters, it’s perfectly logical that Adam ate an apple before discovering just what else Eve had to offer.

 Here's the situation: Dodin, a clearly well-heeled landowner so passionate about food that (to his embarrassment) he’s known in some circles as the Napoleon of gastronomy, has a complicated relationship with his live-in cook, Eugénie. Together, in a kitchen entirely lacking today’s electrical appliances, they craft fabulous meals that delight his circle of male friends.  Eugénie knows she’s welcome to join these gatherings, but she seems radiantly content to keep to her place in the kitchen, enjoying the labors of food preparation and the hearty satisfaction of their guests. At times she also welcomes Dodin as a bedmate, but continues to make it clear that she will not marry him, that she requires the right to her own solitude, when she so chooses.

 Nonetheless, these two are bound together so tightly, thanks to their mutual passion for food and food preparation, that it seems impossible to imagine them ever completely apart. A curious sidenote: lead actors Binoche and Benoît Magimel were romantically involved for five years early in this century. They welcomed a daughter together, but later moved on. In the film, though the relationship faces a moment of parting, love survives in a mysterious but truly appropriate way. 

  I have no idea what kind of cook Binoche might be in real life. But the camera captures her (and Magimel) deftly crafting the most simple but elegant of dishes. She smiles beatifically while crimping a crust, decorating a cake, surveying her garden produce, or watching the delight of a smart child who appreciates the subtle ingredients of her broth. There’s something earthy about her that suits this role, and I recall a similar pairing of Binoche and delicious flavors in Chcocolat. In that lovely English-language film, directed in 2000 by Lasse Hallstrōm, she played a rather magical maker of confectionary delights that transform the malcontents of a small French town into happy hedonists. If you’ve ever wondered about the link between Binoche’s beauty and a just-ripe pear, this is the film for you.





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