In France, a robust appetite is a virtue if not a heroic trait.
Eating gratifies all the senses: We take in the aroma of a handsome dish, delight at the sound of a sizzling steak or crave the crunch of a crusty baguette. So to fully appreciate the various sensory dimensions of a fine French meal is, essentially, to express a sophisticated artistic judgment.
“The Taste of Things,” by the director Tran Anh Hung, is a 19th-century French romance powered by this understanding of food’s transcendence. The feature opened in theaters Wednesday in France and will play on screens at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on Nov. 10 before its Oscar-qualifying run in mid-December.
The movie is about a distinguished gourmand, Dodin (Benoît Magimel), and his preternaturally gifted chef, Eugénie (Juliette Binoche). They live together in the French countryside and together concoct lavish meals for themselves and Dodin’s coterie of foodie friends. Their lives entirely revolve around the cultivation and creation of these dishes, which Hung emphasizes through long, elaborate cooking scenes.
When I first watched “The Taste of Things” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I was surrounded by a delightfully vocal audience. The oohing and ahhing was ubiquitous and, apparently, a visceral response, similar to what is elicited by beholding Monet’s water lilies or being wrapped in the velvety textures of Whitney Houston’s voice. Savoring a tasty meal (or even just watching one come together on a big screen) brings a kind of joy that can’t be explained by logic or reason.
Reviews of the film in France have been mixed. Le Monde’s Clarisse Fabre found its blissful atmosphere and near-absence of dramatic tension perplexing and boring. Olivier Lamm of Libération wrote that there’s much more to the film than its food-porn attractions — it’s also about the assault of junk food and globalization on French standards.
The country’s rich gastronomic tradition — and its long history of federally regulating the quality and authenticity of its wines and produce — is a particular point of national pride, and French film industry leaders have embraced the gourmand label. This year, “The Taste of Things” was selected as the French submission for the Oscar’s best international film category over Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winner, “Anatomy of a Fall.”
The decision was met with objections from French critics, who said Triet was punished for the political charge of her acceptance speech at Cannes. However, the selection of Hung’s film isn’t all that surprising given the selection committee’s evident partiality to films commenting on the country’s national identity — or, from a more cynical standpoint, films that offer Oscar voters a tourist-friendly idea of France.
The French devotion to the culinary arts is a bit of an onscreen cliché, and Hollywood films like “Ratatouille” and “Chocolat” (the latter, also starring Binoche, made big money in the United States, but fared far less well in France) have relied on stereotypically French settings, like a rustic village and a Parisian bistro, to communicate lessons about food’s revolutionary and unifying powers.
More rewarding — and complex — is the 1956 French classic “La Traversée de Paris,” starring the Frenchest of all Frenchmen, Jean Gabin, as an artist-turned-black market courier in Nazi-occupied Paris. This black dramedy stars Gabin and the comedian Bourvil, who play a bickering duo who must transport four suitcases of contraband pork across the city while evading the authorities and a horde of hungry hounds.
Political instability not only cuts off access to revered foodstuffs, it drains the very spirit of those committed to the art of eating. In the 1987 Danish film “Babette’s Feast,” Babette (Stéphane Audran), a French chef, is forced to flee from her Parisian neighborhood when the Paris Commune, an insurrectionist government, seizes power in 1871.
Seeking refuge in the Danish countryside, Babette moves into a spartan Protestant household manned by two Protestant sisters accustomed to eating the same brown fish stew, which has a mudlike consistency. Fourteen years into her employment with the sisters, Babette miraculously wins the French lottery and, rather than fund her return to France, spends all her winnings on a multicourse dinner for the townspeople.
The feast — a turtle soup, stuffed quail, rum sponge cake and more — breaks the guests’ brains, while Babette, in the final scene, emerges as an emissary of the sublime. Her culinary gifts, her cooking’s ability to disrupt the very foundations of what her Danish friends perceived to be reality, make her angelic.
At the same time, isn’t fine dining — like certain kinds of music, literature and art — rather bourgeois? Nothing screams upper middle class like the prim and proper dinner scene. This is delightful in films by, say, Éric Rohmer, who was fond of depicting the natural choreography of mealtime, the mess of wine glasses and plates of fruit and cheese floating between guests in the middle of a meandering conversation.
In other films, dinnertime can seem ridiculous. Consider Luis Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” in which three couples try over and over to enjoy a white tablecloth feast, but do not actually eat. Over the course of the film, their polite mannerisms and refined gestures become increasingly absurd.
Marco Ferreri’s “La Grande Bouffe” plays like a glutton’s version of “Salo,” linking the pleasure of eating to consumerist society and the gross hedonism of the leisure class. In the film, four friends literally feed themselves to death, feasting on an endless parade of shrimp, turkey, pot roast and sausage while reading excerpts from canonical works of literature and, notably, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s gastronomical bible, “The Physiology of Taste.”
“La Grande Bouffe” is a nauseating showcase and a welcome retort to the glorification of tunnel-vision foodies like Brillat-Savarin. Ferreri was also a gourmand, and he reportedly had difficulties keeping himself from binge eating. His film points a finger at himself as well as society at large.
“The Taste of Things” is an adaptation of the 1961 novel “The Passionate Epicure” by Marcel Rouff, which was itself inspired by none other than Brillat-Savarin. “The Physiology of Taste” is supposed to be about the science of eating, but it often veers off into discussions about sex, love and sensuality.
Brillat-Savarin’s passion for food is not unlike the passion he might develop for another person, a dynamic that Hung’s film depicts with a hypnotic warmth. When I see Binoche’s Eugénie, laboring away on a buttery risotto or a vegetable omelet, I’m overcome by the sense memory of something deliciously intimate, like being held tight or a loved one’s scent. In that moment, nothing else seems to matter.