What is the greatest food movie of all time? For at least a decade, the shortlist has remained mostly the same — Babette's Feast, Big Night, Tampopo. But there's a new contender. The Taste of Things is an intense love story in which the saying "cooking is love made visible" could not be more true.
Based on the 1920 French novel The Passionate Epicure, by Marcel Rouff, it follows a cook named Eugénie and her wealthy, epicurean boss Dodin-Bouffant (loosely based on Anthelme Brillat-Savarin) who share a home, a passion for food and an abiding love for each other. Eugénie, played by Juliette Binoche, is an extraordinary cook, an artist who is confident in her work. Dodin, played by Benoît Magimel, is her employer, her collaborator and sometimes her lover. In the skilled hands of director Tran Anh Hung, who's famous for The Scent of Green Papaya, among other films, we get to see their love story unfold over the table of Dodin's 19th-century home.
We also interviewed the film's Foley artist, Olivier Thys, who was responsible for creating all of the cooking sounds in the movie.
Evan Kleiman: Hung, you're known for creating incredibly evocative cinema that is as visually stunning as the stories, which are filled with very sensitive emotion. What was it about this particular story of a fictional gourmand and his cook that pushed you to make it?
Tran Anh Hung: I think that was the challenge for me, how to create the fusion between a love story and a story about cuisine, about food. Usually, when it's a movie about food, we see it at the beginning and then the drama of the story will take over and we will lose the story about food. Here, I wanted to find a balance between the two and that was the most interesting thing to do for this movie.
For me, as a watcher, that was what was really exceptional for me about the film — how food was the communicative through line between these two characters.
Tran Anh Hung: Yes, it's true. I think that in the middle of the movie, we see Dodin cooking for Eugénie and precisely at that moment, we can see this fusion between the two themes of the movie. Everything is about the sensuality of food and also the sensuality of the love between Eugénie and Dodin.
Juliette, there's an incredibly beautiful physicality to your culinary performance. It's powerful and natural. Do you cook?
Juliette Binoche: I do.
Are you what people call a foodie?
Juliette Binoche: No, I'm in this generation that cooks. I do my market, I go to the farmers market, and I've done that since I'm an adult, so it's been 40 years, and since I had my kids. I've been cooking my whole life. I've been taught by my mother, not great cooking like we see in the film, more everyday, basic life kind of food but with a little twist, a little garlic, a little herbs, a little curry here and there. It's things you learn throughout encounters or from the parents you had.
My parents loved cooking. I think I passed that need and passion, in a way, to my kids. I'm proud of that because in the midst of working and traveling and all, to give some basics to your children, that's really what you want to give. That's the tool for good health and the love of being a human.
Did you have a culinary hand double for the quenelles, for example?
Juliette Binoche: No, we learned it on the spot.
Juliette Binoche: Yeah, we both learned it but Benoît [Magimel] is a very good cook, and I know it for real because we lived together for a few years and we had a daughter, so we knew each other. I think it's also part of the harmony of cooking together that Hung was able to capture. But also, Hung had very much anticipated everything with Pierre Gagnaire [who served as a consultant on the film] in choosing the meals and also observing how Pierre was cooking in his own kitchen. We were sent links of videos where he was cooking. So before we actually shot the scenes, we knew how to make it in a way. When you've been cooking a long time, you're often "behind the hands" because the hands know more than you. Do you see what I'm saying?
It's true. Hung, watching this movie was like seeing the works of Édouard Manet come to life. I found the scene that you referred to when Dodin finally cooks for Eugénie and we are taken into that upstairs dining room for the first time. It's the only time in which we are in an interior place of extreme luxury versus the rest of the film, which is so pastoral. A lot of outdoor scenes in the downstairs kitchen are very, very different, very dark. Could you talk a bit about that contrast, the lightness, the glittering of that particular set, and how that framed the interaction between the two of them?
Tran Anh Hung: Yes, in this room, because it was a protected monument, you cannot touch the walls. It's a lot of paintings directly painted on the wood. You cannot even put light above them. That's why we have to use a lot of candles as a main source of light for the scene. That brought this feeling of softness and beauty to the scene. All this was something that we needed to do because we could not do it in another way. At the same time, it was our chance to be able to find this kind of light with candles. It's very soft, it gives the scene its specificity and it's unique in the whole movie.
In that scene, Juliette, did you already know what the menu was going to be? Or as the character Dodin presented it to you, were you genuinely surprised?
Juliette Binoche: I was genuinely surprised. That was the game that Hung wanted us to experience for real, in front of the camera, the delicious surprises of haute cuisine, the best cuisine you can make in France. That was the joy of being an actor, being served the most delicious meals. But I was hoping that there were not going to be too many takes and it happened quite quickly, so I didn't have to eat it 10 times. As an actor, when you have to eat, it's always a big question.
Hung, I should ask you about your food life. Do you cook? Did you learn to cook as a young person?
Tran Anh Hung: No, not at all. I don't know how to cook. My mother, when I was young, always chased me out of the kitchen saying that it's not a place for a man, for a boy. So later on, I don't know how to cook. And also because of my wife. She's a very good cook and it was the same thing.
Juliette Binoche: But, Hung, I heard that after we made the film, you actually cooked something for her.
Tran Anh Hung: Yes, exactly. I cook chicken with mushrooms and cider. I cooked it three times. The first time, it was very good. The second time, it was not that good. And the third time, it was a disaster.
Juliette Binoche: You have to try again, please!
Tran Anh Hung: Yes, I will try again. I wanted to go too fast. I wanted to invent. I wanted to change. I wanted to innovate. And I was not ready for that.
I love how Dodin seduced even you.
Tran Anh Hung: Yes.
Juliette Binoche: Oh, yes, definitely. I don't know how you feel but in my life, when a man can cook, it really brings something special. I think it's very seductive because it's usually in the hands of the woman. And when a man does it, it feels like wow. There's something so warming and special. I'm always very sensitive to that.
100%. Did Benoît used to cook for you?
Juliette Binoche: Oh, yeah, he's a very good cook.
In an interview several years ago, you said that to be a good actor, one must be a generous human being. It strikes me that the same is true for cooking. Do you see any parallels between the two, between acting and cooking?
Juliette Binoche: Oh, definitely. It's about transforming matter. The cook has to transform this matter. The matter is not just something outside, there's something inside, hidden. You've got to mix it with something else that's gonna enhance something of that matter. I think actors, they have their bodies, and in that body, they have to somehow, with intention behind it, or with it in it, you pull it out into a place that is called acting.
For me, it's more being than acting because in my opinion, the best acting is when you allow things to come to you and transform this part of you. But it needs to have this modesty, in a way, and to have the experience of letting it happen to you more than you trying to push it with that will of punching and showing how much you're acting and how much you know how to act. When I hear Pierre Gagnaire speak about his cooking, being a chef, he very much speaks in the same terms. There's a tenderness that is coming into it, that is something that is more soft than hard. You don't show your ego on the plate. You don't push it. You just allow it. I think as an actor, it's very much true in that perspective.
Tran Anh Hung: For me, it's exactly the same thing. When I'm making a movie, I don't have a strong will to achieve something. You need to be there and looking, listening to everything and then trying to find something that comes out of the actors and the situation and the sets, the location. All this will suggest to me how to make things. I'm not coming to the set with a strong will.
Juliette Binoche: That's probably why, Hung, we got along so well, because there was this kind of a dance that was not imposed, it was an invitation. It's all about inviting the other. Creating a film, it's difficult. We have different beings, different lives, different energies and how to make this into a place of harmony. Even though there's conflict in the scene, you have to find a way to find this kind of spiral. You've got to be one. You've got to make yourself a unity in order to make the best out of it. So I really felt that, Hung, while I was working with you.
And, Juliette, Hung created this incredible set, this space for you to just be.
Juliette Binoche: Yes, very much. After this film, I bought a farm. There's a barn and I had this fantasy of transforming half of the barn into this big kitchen because when we were in that kitchen shooting, it was just the best. Everything happens in kitchens, the best conversations, sharing time. There's an excitement. You can cook together, you can peel things together as a family or with friends. Or you taste the first wine. There's always something warm and family-like even though it's only with friends. So this film, it pulls you into softness and warmth and truth. That's really what it does, I think, to people watching it.
The film was originally going to be called "Pot-au-Feu," after the iconic French stew, which is central to the film's plot. Do either of you have a strong memory or association with the dish? Did you eat it growing up? Juliette, have you made it for your children?
Juliette Binoche: It's one of the dishes I prefer because it's very farmer-like. There's something so comforting about it. You can eat it for two, three days and it becomes better and better because there's a broth that is very important to the dish. And it's full of veggies. I'm a vegetable lover. It's soft, it's yummy. I don't know, there's something very comforting about it. So I've been fed with pot-au-feu and I fed my kids for many years with that dish.
Tran Anh Hung: Yeah, the same for me.
Juliette Binoche: In Vietnam, Hung, because you're originally from Vietnam, there's a pot-au-feu... the pho soup.
Tran Anh Hung: Yes, exactly. And people say that it comes from the pot-au-feu because it's exactly the same way of cooking it but with different ingredients.
Hung, there's a line that Dodin says. He says. "It takes culture and a good memory to shape one's taste."
Tran Anh Hung: You know, somehow, when you talk to big chefs in the world, most of them talk about the childhood memory of a dish. They always want to recreate what they like when they are a little boy or a little girl. So it's all about memory. It's related to the time of happiness, when you don't have too many problems. Food is something like that, I think.
I say this as someone who has recently turned 70, so perhaps I'm biased but there is something so beautiful about watching Eugénie and Dodin who are in what Dodin describes as the autumn of their lives. In America, we are inundated with television content of young, ambitious cooks. To see the kind of mastery that only comes with age and repetition is absolutely beautiful to see on the screen.
Tran Anh Hung: You're right. I cannot say something better than how you formulate it. It's really that.