Juliette Binoche’s new film is a luscious celebration of gastronomy that never truly satiates

Juliette Binoche’s new film is a luscious celebration of gastronomy that never truly satiates
  • PublishedMay 6, 2024

Few things in global cinema possess the cross-cultural appeal of fine dining and Juliette Binoche. If only this numbingly pleasant romantic drama knew how to pair its star ingredients.

The Taste of Things stars Binoche as Eugenie, the long-term professional and romantic counterpart to culinary artist Dodin (Benoît Magimel; The Piano Teacher) at the tail end of the 19th century. Despite their mutual admiration, forged from decades of chasing gastronomic innovation together, Eugenie remains resistant to Dodin’s proposals of marriage.

Not only is Dodin (who bears the objectively hilarious moniker of “the Napoleon of culinary arts”) tasked with winning Eugenie over, another challenge comes his way when he agrees to prepare a meal for a visiting prince with extravagant tastes, whose appetite can extend across a single 8-hour meal.

The pair’s wordless choreography in the kitchen is expressed with a gentle yet confident physicality, its synchronicity demonstrating an intimate familiarity with their craft and each other.

The dazzling creations themselves are best left unspoiled; the final reveal of each dish, following prolonged sequences of preparation, are some of the film’s greatest delights.

It’s a sensory indulgence that privileges a quiet sensuality over roaring bombast. Hard-core carnivores will undoubtedly salivate over the repeated sights of tender red meat submitting to searing metal, but the film is most keenly felt in its soft, slippery textures — such as the droplets of caviar that are licked off the back of a thumb.

Dodin’s fondling of poached pears even recalls the notoriously irresistible peach in Call Me By Your Name, especially when its curvaceous contours are followed by a shot of Eugenie’s reclining, naked body.

A film still of Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel, both in late 19th century dress, pouring liquid between two pans.
The Taste of Things is a genre that serves Juliette Binoche well: a luscious celebration of gastronomy.(Supplied: Rialto)

The Taste of Thing’s decadence is unmistakably stirring — but where it succeeds as an ode to pleasure, it fails as a drama.

Binoche’s luminous presence and shattering sensitivity has long entranced filmmakers like Claire Denis (High Life; Let the Sunshine In) and Leos Carax (The Lovers on the Bridge), but director Tran Anh Hung only ever requires her to operate at a reposed simmer. An inchoate sketch of a character, her desire for freedom is never portrayed as seriously as her craft.

Tran is strangely disinterested in exploring the inherent tension of their relationship, in which Eugenie remains Dodin’s employee despite their treatment of each other as equals. The gender politics of the period setting are also entirely elided. In the absence of attention paid to her circumstances — especially considering her undeniable kitchen chemistry with Dodin — Eugenie comes off as merely fickle.

A film still of Benoît Magimel with his arms around a laughing Juliette Binoche. They're both in late 19th century dress.
Real life former lovers Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel play Eugenie and Dodin — and yet still their dynamic remains hollow.(Supplied: Rialto)

Even the reunion of real-life ex-lovers Binoche and Magimel in the film’s central romance can only add so much interest to their hollow dynamic.

There’s an admirable lack of incident in the film’s two-plus-hour run-time, its gossamer-thin plotting largely in service of its much-touted cooking set-pieces.

The entrancing spectacle of French delicacies being assembled by hand hardly needs to be justified, especially on a cinema screen.

Yet even the film’s luscious celebration of gastronomy never truly satiates.

A film still of Benoît Magimel and Juliette Binoche, in late C19 dress, standing together around a table, with two women.
When the film isn’t fixated on the preparation of food, its characters interminably philosophise about it.(Supplied: Rialto)

Fine dining is inherently enthralling in its laborious, painstaking pursuit of perfection, but the cooking in this film is reduced to an act of frictionless pleasure, a series of aesthetically pleasing rhythms indistinguishable from your average FoodTok montage. The physical labour involved is reduced to motions that are as graceful as they are weightless.

Perhaps it’s a welcome reprieve from the high-wire intensity of The Bear, or the mordant theatrics of The Menu and Flux Gourmet. But The Taste of Things desperately needed an approach to its own subject that was less patronising than Pixar’s Ratatouille — which, frankly, is still the best film ever made about French cooking.

While The Taste of Things takes pains to remind audiences of the reality of 19th century cooking — produce is gathered, water is summoned from wells, ice boxes are maintained – any sense of grit or exertion is suffocated by an overwrought elegance. In this insipid fantasy, everything is preposterously pretty.

The film only briefly embraces a sense of experimentation, discovery and wonder in its second half, in which Dodin trains a young apprentice chef.

A film still of Benoît Magimel, in late 19th century dress, cooking at a stove. He's pouring flour into a saucepan.
The entrancing spectacle of French delicacies being assembled by hand hardly needs to be justified, especially on a cinema screen.(Supplied: Rialto)

When the film isn’t fixated on the preparation of food, its characters interminably philosophise about it. The breathless enthusiasm of each character would be endearing if the film’s intellectual discussion didn’t consist of bland narrations of culinary history and leaden metaphors, as if audiences needed convincing that haute cuisine was an art form comparable to poetry.

Is it not enough for a film to be beautiful? Certainly, those looking for glossy food porn will find it here in spades, but you’d also hope that a film shortlisted for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars would offer genuine insight into the craft it so strenuously romanticises.

For all its professed love of food, The Taste of Things ultimately takes for granted the exquisite – sometimes agonising – intricacies of the culinary arts.

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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