If food is the pathway to love, then The Taste of Things will make your heart flutter. This scrumptious and sensuous cinematic feast should satisfy film buffs and foodies alike. Writer/director Trần Anh Hùng (Norwegian Wood) indulges the senses with a passionate love story that hits the heart and the belly. It’s a romantic swoon of a movie and everything that great cinema should be. The film delights the senses and simmers like fine risotto with aromas of wine, butter, and shallots wafting through the air. It’s France’s Oscar submission for Best International Feature and just might be the film to beat.
Juliette Binoche gives one of her finest performances as Eugénie, the cook employed by wealthy landowner and foodie extraordinaire Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel). It’s 1885 and Bouffant’s opulent kitchen has lingering notes of the French feudal system. There’s a mild master/servant relationship between Bouffant and Eugénie, but one could easily mistake them for lovers. Anh Hùng introduces the gourmands’ delicate tango with quite possibly one of the best opening acts ever put to screen. For the first 30 minutes or so of The Taste of Things, Binoche and Magimel create something extraordinarily erotic in the kitchen. It’s a fish pie.
However, it just isn’t any fish pie. It’s a vol-au-vent made with extravagant deliciousness. Just watch as Binoche whirls around the kitchen directing her apprentices. Crawfish boil and sauces simmer. A puff pastry rises, just as sensuously as Binoche warms the heart. With a shake of her elbow and a dollop of crème, Eugénie drenches her fish in wine—a whole bottle!—and lets the stock simmer. The food on display is so intense one can smell it. The passion with which it’s made, meanwhile, generates palpable heat. Anh Hùng captures two people truly in love as they nimbly craft this feast together.
A Recipe for Success
The Taste of Things is gastronomic cinema of the highest calibre. It sits in good company with films like Babette’s Feast and Tampopo by engaging cinematically with all the ingredients that make food such a richly shared experience. Anh Hùng understands that the joy of cooking is the key ingredient to all the scrumptious foods we eat, though, and Eugénie and Dodin’s amorous connection exudes the joie-de-vivre that exists only in French cuisine.
Eugénie and Dodin’s menu, moreover, indulges a-plenty in their love for food. The menus in The Taste of Things are comically long as the wealthy landowner and his dinner guests enjoy multi-course meals that could feed multiple armies. The vol-au-vent is practically an amuse bouche to the sinfully decadent parade of roasts, fish, and desserts that follow.
Although it’s a period film, The Taste of Things has a contemporary eye for comedy when it comes to food. The seemingly endless cavalcade of dishes evokes the explosion of over-indulgent food videos on Facebook on TikTok. In 2023, foodie influencers make stomach-churning videos by creating, say, burritos that are wrapped in pizza, then wrapped in bacon, then deep fried, stuffed into a turkey, deep fried again, and then drenched in American cheese before being dunked into all kinds of artery clogging dips. The Taste of Things, however, tells the foodies to hold its beer: it finds an even bolder procession of food. Each dish is a buffet of indulgence, folded with a care for ingredients. Chef Eugénie understands that a fine art distinguishes richness and excess.
The Gauntlet is Boeuf
Dodin also appreciates that good cooking favours quantity over quality. (Although a little bit of both is always nice!) He encounters a pornographic amount of food when the Prince of Eurasia invites him and his comrades for dinner. A servant presents the menu for the diners. As he reads it, the list goes on, and on, and on…and on. Turkey served with a side of roast beef and three kinds of potatoes is not a meal, but an appetizer before an appetizer. Dodin returns to Eugénie’s kitchen eight hours later, disgruntled and bloated after consuming it all. Naturally, she soothes his belly with a few courses of quality grub—enough food for a wedding.
Being a respectable Frenchman, though, Dodin returns the invitation. However, he aims to throw down the gauntlet by showing the prince that less can be home. He shrewdly tells Eugénie his plan: to serve a simple pot-au-feu. The classic dish is provincial, but it’s a staple of French cuisine. Eugénie hesitantly accepts the plan. The simple yet delicate combination of beef, marrow, and fresh root vegetables from her garden will hit the haughty prince right in the gut. She and Dodin get to work, perfecting the dish for the big day. They again grace the kitchen like old lovers.
Their union, moreover, is one of harmonious flavours. Dodin frequently asks Eugénie to marry him, but she always declines. She loves being his cook. And Dodin loves being her diner.
The Language of Love
It helps, too, that Binoche and Magimel, former lovers themselves, blend like flavours left to marinate overnight. The way they touch the food, anticipating each other’s movements amid the finely choreographed cooking sequences, displays comfort built over time. In lieu of music, the sounds of cooking—chops, hisses, clanks, and stirs—offers a melodic soundtrack, as do the satisfying clinks of cutlery on fine china. Food, moreover, offers the third party in their culinary throuple. Their relationship with food is sensuous and erotic. If the prawn scene in I Am Love gave you an orgasm, then The Taste of Things will make your heart, belly, and genitals explode.
The film’s ravishing visual sense, bathed beautifully in natural light, harnesses the sensuous qualities of food. In perhaps the best match cut since Lawrence of Arabia, the film pairs a poached pear with Binoche’s shapely derrière. Binoche particularly radiates incandescent warmth as Eugénie glides throughout the kitchen while ensuring that each touch satisfies Dodin. The glow that Binoche affords the chef lends the film its complexity of flavours as Eugénie’s health fails her. As the roles reverse and Dodin feeds Eugénie, he creates each dish with tenderness and nourishes her with love.
Anh Hùng envelopes the film in their singular love language: cooking. The Taste of Things understands that for people for truly appreciate good food, a full belly isn’t the end game. Rather, spending time in the kitchen with someone is among the most intimate of practices. Devoting time to crafting a dish with care, and watching someone devour it, savouring and appreciating the complexity of flavours and the time that went into creating them, is mutually satisfying for diner and chef alike. You’ll eagerly want a second helping after scarfing down this film.