The Taste of Things has an aftertaste

By Moira Jean Sullivan
La Passion de Dodin Bouffant (France 2023); The Taste of Things

Most people have small apartments with tiny kitchens and barely enough room for preparing the kind of meal that in the first 17 minutes of The Taste of Things is served to six men in suits and ties by a young apprentice and female cook. Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) learned the art of cooking from her mother and father, a renowned Parisian pastry chef. The main course includes a cream sauce for vegetables she spoons into a large bread bowl, topped off by flaming cake filled with ice cream - “baked Alaska” ("bombe Alaska" actually in this film) or "omelette norvégienne" in French. It is called a “scientific desert” created by the American physicist Sir Benjamin Thompson who made the discovery that egg whites made a great insulator for cold filling in a hot cake. After making this elaborate meal Eugénie almost faints, and I understand why she would after this physically exhausting and demanding culinary ordeal. She was a cook long before the manor owner Dodin but she never sits with his friends at the table. The original title of the film was Pot-au-Feu (Pot on the Fire), the name of an elaborate but comparably unerotic and bland looking meat and vegetable stew prepared by Dodin later in the film. 

The film’s title in French is La Passion de Dodin Bouffant and the narrative is about Dodin's desire for Eugénie and her cooking. Funding for this film came from the Loire region, Canal Plus and French National Television, directed by Trần Anh Hùng, winner of the best director award at Cannes in May. Originally from Vietnam he has lived in France since 1974 and attended film school at École nationale supérieure Louis-Lumière (ENS Louis-Lumière). Several of his films have won at Cannes in the past.

One thing I have noticed about cooking films set in France are the large kitchens, great utilities, and open spaces.It’s a joy to cook in a place where there's room and so I pause here to note that it is a class difference if you don't have a good kitchen or can afford installing one. In Paris apartments can come without kitchens and so it is nothing to take for granted. When the owner moves, they take the kitchen with them. I have a stove in the US where the heat does not go outside anymore via a stove pipe but stays in the kitchen, that becomes like a furnace. In Stockholm during some renovations ‘kitchens’ are built into a closet with no room for the heat to escape except a ventilator that circulates above the stove. There is no storage for large pans or pots. The kitchen in The Taste of Things is in a French manor with a huge garden, a wine cellar and underground well of fresh water. A film like this is enjoyable for spectators who don’t have such resources. Since this is a period pieces dressing for dinner is a luxury.

Historically film is a window to a world of privilege as the characters in this film. I was surprised to see a film like this at Cannes for it is about a world of an ideal past. The extraordinarily refined scenes with meat intensive dishes that require elaborate preparation are beautifully arranged. The kitchen has sauté pans, huge pots for boiling and apprentices who assist in the creation of delicacies from the garden or the market. If you watch this film while you're hungry it should make it even more pleasurable. The sounds of washing vegetables, steaming food, whipping, pouring, and sizzling dishes are part of this almost edible film. The young female apprentices are so used to cooking that they can even taste what the ingredients are without ever seeing them. In one scene, six men with napkins over their heads guzzle and slurp a dish with great relish, reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated classic Spirited Away (Japan 2001) when the parents of ten-year-old "Sen” turn into pigs in an outdoor restaurant. But it is not just the consumption of food in The Taste of Things: we are instructed in the film that ostentatious, lavish meals constructed without a knowledge of food preparation is not French "haute cuisine".

The focus of the cinematography is of course on the utensils and preparation of gourmet meals. The conversation centers on how wonderful the food is with a short history of French cooking with important historical figures. The great Burgundy wines such as 'Clos Vougeot' revered in the Papacy situated in Avignon in the 13th century is part of the history lesson. The men at the table tell the story of Marie-Antoine Carême who grew up poor with fourteen brothers and sisters and not enough food to eat.

At the end of the film is a soliloquy by Dodin Bouffant on where food first lands in the mouth and on the peristaltic movement involved in digestion. The relish in which he tells this story is almost erotic, which makes it clear why it took 20 years for him to ask Eugénie to marry him. After all, he regarded her more as his cook than his wife. This is a question posed by Eugénie to him and it is important to her. Her 20 year relationship based on labor intensive food preparation with Dodin involves knocking on her door for permission to enter and peering into her bedroom to watch her partially undressed with her back to the door like a piece of sculpture. The way he thinks about her almost as a meal to devour is contained in his voyeuristic glances. In the meanwhile, his rudeness to the young female apprentices in the manor and other female cooks is obvious all the more since he in contrast relishes speaking with his male comrades who consume Eugénie's cooking and discuss her food with scientific detachment over wine and tobacco; Dodin may love Eugenie but she is eroticized in an uncomfortable way in Trần Anh Hùng almost perfectly created film and meticulously arranged mise en scène like one of Eugénie's gourmet meals.

Trần Anh Hùng

© 2024 - Moira Sullivan: 5/24
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