Capturing the sensual art of food

Juliette Binoche and Benoit Magimel in The Taste of Things.
Juliette Binoche and Benoit Magimel in The Taste of Things.
A new film starring Juliette Binoche is a love letter to French food culture, director Tran Anh Hung tells Jonathan Romney.

The current menu for film and TV stories about cuisine is all conflict and crisis — kitchens as battlefields, dishes forged in the white-hot skillet of raging tempers. But new French film The Taste of Things couldn’t be further from The Bear or Boiling Point. A controlled simmer is more the temperature of this piece by Vietnamese-born director Tran Anh Hung — the most rapturous hymn to culinary art since such beloved gourmet outings as Babette’s Feast or Eat Drink Man Woman.

Set in the 1880s, the film — which won Tran the best director award at Cannes last year — is about the relationship between cook Eugenie (Juliette Binoche) and her gourmet employer and lover Dodin (Benoit Magimel). But the film is ultimately about creativity, says Tran.

"I wanted to make a movie about art and I chose food, because this art is very concrete. For me, cinema is something that needs to be very sensual, very physical."

Speaking in English on Zoom from Ho Chi Minh City, his camera off because of a bad connection, Tran describes the pleasures of a film whose characters not only delight in eating, but in the almost sculptural handling of their materials: fish, poultry, celeriac, a miraculously ethereal cloud of pastry. In long, elegantly choreographed sequences, we see Binoche and Magimel meticulously preparing complex dishes, for real.

"It was quite easy for us, because I’d just give them a chicken or lettuce, and — let’s do it! And when they did, it immediately produced for them a pleasure of something being transformed." Tran says.

If The Taste of Things comes across as quintessentially French — it was the nation’s entry for the Oscars, although it didn’t make the final nominations — that is because Tran wanted to make a film about the meaning of food in the country that he migrated to when he was 12.

"In France, a meal is where people gather — they talk, not only about food but about culture. In Vietnam, we don’t talk much around the table, but in France, you always see parents asking their children, ‘What have you read recently?’."

Tran also points to the systematic, formal history of French food culture.

"They defined everything — how to set a table, how many glasses, how many forks." That’s why Dodin in the film is known as "the Napoleon of the culinary arts" — because he codifies, establishes culinary protocols. In that sense, he’s a version of Auguste Escoffier, who formalised modern French cuisine in his 1903 book Le Guide Culinaire.

"Before that, it was quite a mess. Today you know that you need 20 grams of this and one kilo of that. But at that period, a recipe looked like a poem and you had to be able to interpret it."

Along with Escoffier, Tran looked into Brillat-Savarin’s 1825 gastro-philosophical classic The Physiology of Taste, while his on-set consultant was the Michelin three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire. Yet Tran has never cooked much himself, and only since making the film has he really risked venturing behind a stove — and only with French food.

"French is less complicated. You have to make a lot of different dishes to build a Vietnamese meal."

The truly distinctive blend of ingredients in The Taste of Things is the combination of Binoche and Magimel: once a real-life couple, they haven’t acted together since 1999. The result is a palpable on-screen tenderness and respect between their characters, two mature people who have known each other for years. Tran says that Binoche was initially sceptical about whether the pairing would work, or whether Magimel would accept the role. But the result was perfect, he says.

"Benoit has this fragility in him. You know he has these doubts in front of this very strong woman — Eugenie, Juliette." Tran’s favourite scene between the two characters involves them simply sharing an omelette.

"Somehow she’s telling him that she loves him, but in a way that he can’t completely understand. The moment is not completely clear — I really like that."

His new film may seem a departure for a director who made his name with Vietnamese dramas, yet it very much chimes with Tran’s 1993 debut, The Scent of Green Papaya, set in 1950s and ’60s Saigon, in which a young domestic servant is enraptured by the textures of the world around her, food included. That film caused some controversy in its apparent glorification of 

a woman’s life in servitude, although its sheer poetry somewhat subverts the surface meaning. With The Taste of Things, some critics have similarly bridled at the theme: a woman preparing meals for the pleasure of her lover and his male epicure chums. Conversely, we also see Dodin devotedly cooking for Eugenie, and in awe of her as an artist. 

"It’s Eugenie who determines the nature of this relationship,"  Tran says.

Tran grew up in Laos, the son of parents who made uniforms for the French army; the family moved to France when it became clear that Vietnam and Laos would be taken over by the communists in 1975. In Paris, he studied cinematography before making The Scent of Green Papaya, recreating old Saigon on a French studio set. That film and At the Height of Summer, about three sisters in modern Hanoi, established his reputation as a meticulous screen poet — but in between, Cyclo was an intense, violent drama about street life in Ho Chi Minh City, based on what Tran saw on returning to Vietnam in the early ’90s.

The star of Tran’s first four films was his wife Tran Nu Yen Khe, one of the most captivating presences in ’90s art cinema. She has since worked with him behind the camera, and is art director on The Taste of Things. The couple, who have a son and daughter in their 20s, are in Ho Chi Minh City for an exhibition of Yen Khe’s paintings and sculpture. 

"All the beauty you see in my movies really comes from her,"  Tran says. 

"She’s always next to me behind the monitor, she checks everything." 

Tran remembers meeting her in Paris when he was casting a short film, and feeling as if he was suddenly discovering Vietnam: "It was like an ancestor touched my shoulder and said, ‘You know, she’s the right person’." 

Is The Taste of Things a veiled portrait of the couple’s own relationship? 

"Yes, it’s obvious," Tran says.

With The Taste of Things, Tran seems to have reinvented himself as a hyper-French director.  

But for now, Tran is relieved to be back in Vietnam. 

"It’s a good place for me to relax — it’s hot and I’m not tense, like in a cold country. In Paris, all my muscles are tense." 

The projects he is currently planning are Asian again — a Vietnamese all-female drama, a life of Buddha — and seem likely to pursue Tran’s line in meticulous aesthetics. 

"I feel that today movies are too focused on themes and story. We see less and less of the language of cinema." 

He believes in the miniature, he says: "Something very small and at the same time, a deep, deep meaning about the feeling of life." — The Observer

French Film Festival

 - The French Film Festival screens in Dunedin, June 12-26

 - The Taste of Things screens on:

June 16 at 12.30pm

June 21 at 8.15pm

June 22 at 1pm