At the center of everything good in the world is a bittersweet kernel: All things pass away. The grandest cathedral, the most vibrant painting, a beautiful harmony, a perfect aperitif — none of it will last forever. And all great love stories end, one way or another, in sadness.
This will break your heart if you think about it very long, as much with grief as joy. Yet somehow it’s also what makes life worth living. This conundrum lies at the heart of “The Taste of Things,” a magnificent culinary romance from the French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung. The couple living the conundrum are Eugénie (Juliette Binoche), a brilliant cook, and the well-known gourmand she works for, Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel). It is the late 19th century, and they live in an idyllic house in the French countryside, where Dodin entertains friends and visitors. The kitchen is the beating heart of the house.
Nothing matters more to Eugénie and Dodin than crafting exceptional meals, from simple omelets to the kinds of feasts that linger in memory for a lifetime. Nothing except, maybe, each other. They aren’t married, despite Dodin’s pleas over the past 20 years. Eugénie smiles enigmatically and shakes her head; she doesn’t wish to change anything. But it’s inevitable, in the end, that the autumn comes.
The film premiered at Cannes with the title “The Pot-au-Feu,” named after one of its central dishes, a rustic meal of boiled meat and vegetables. In French, however, the title is “La Passion de Dodin Bouffant,” which is also the title of the 1920s novel on which it is loosely based (published in English under the name “The Passionate Epicure”). That novel features one of the most indelible characters in culinary fiction, a gourmand whom the author Marcel Rouff loosely based on the French culinary writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, born in 1755. (Yes, the cheese is named for him.)
Brillat-Savarin is perhaps best known for his book “The Physiology of Taste: Or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy,” which tells you a little bit about him, as well as about the protagonist of “The Taste of Things.” His book has recipes, but really it’s an often funny rhapsody of awe at the joy allowed humans in the simple act of eating. Brillat-Savarin famously quipped, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” an aphorism it’s easy to imagine Dodin trading with his friends around the dining table. In the eyes of men like these, food reveals character. For a host, a meal carefully constructed is evidence of his care for the guest as well as his self-image: Is he boasting? Pleading? Displaying his insecurities? Or inviting others to taste the divine? A guest’s willingness to dive with gusto into a meal prepared before them shows not just care for the host, but for the bounty the earth serves up.
And then, of course, there are the true artists, the chef and the cook. For them, the culinary arts are the highest expression of humanity because they are a product of everything that makes us human: time and attention, every sense, every sensation and, in the end, it’s entirely fleeting. Every good meal is a memory.
Dodin, however, is famous himself, enough to be called the “Napoleon of gastronomy,” a moniker he finds vaguely embarrassing. The envoy of the prince of Eurasia arrives at his home to invite him and his friends to dinner, but at that table they find a repast groaning with show-offy madness, flavors and wines and sauces and cuisines mixed willy-nilly. For Dodin, and Eugénie, this signals not good taste but no taste. No real gourmand would craft a meal like that. For them, the epitome of a great meal is its grace, the kind of thing that Eugénie embodies in her command of the kitchen. She is exceptionally intuitive, as masterly as a great painter.
Tran might well have painted “The Taste of Things,” its luminosity is so immediately attractive. At one point he serves us a perfectly poached pear, shot closely to emphasize its sugary succulence, then fades (a bit cheekily) into Eugénie, arranged like an odalisque, nude on her bed, a gift she is giving. Binoche seemingly glows from inside, a woman perfectly at peace with herself. Dodin tells Eugénie that St. Augustine said, “happiness is continuing to desire what we already have,” and looks at her gently. “But you,” he asks, “have I ever had you?”
He hasn’t. Eugénie is not a woman to be had. She is her own self, choosing with whom and when she will share herself — generous, but, having mastered her art, someone who practices it for the pleasure of it. The fleeting nature of the culinary arts is mirrored for her in the poignant passing of the seasons.
Like other members of the cinematic food canon — “Tampopo,” “Eat Drink Man Woman,” “Babette’s Feast,” “Big Night” — “The Taste of Things” is not just an excuse to look at food. The meals prepared in this movie signify something: a labor of love, a concept of contentment, the immense melancholy inherent in the making of something exquisitely beautiful that will be only a memory an hour from now.
Yet it isn’t not about the food, either. In a phenomenological way, “The Taste of Things” captures the joy of variety injected into mere existence: savory and sweet, hot and sour, juice and cream and astringency are not required for pure subsistence, but the rich range of taste we have created in our daily meals says something about human longings not easily put into words. This mystery, like love, is hard to parse: Though we know loss is entwined with the feast, we choose to savor it anyhow.