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-Cambodian 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.
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