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.
The Taste of Things
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.