Sunday 25 February 2024

Dream kitchen: "The Taste of Things"

Future historians will have a quirk to ponder when revisiting this year's Oscars: how France ended up with a strong Best Picture nominee, but rien to show for itself in Best Foreign Film. The faintly banal answer is that the national committee responsible for nominating titles for consideration in the latter category plumped for another film altogether, and their choice found itself crowded out in what proved an ultra-competitive year for subtitled items. The element of surprise is that where the determinedly slippery
Anatomy of a Fall, the aforementioned Best Picture contender, might once have been considered too ambiguous for Oscar recognition, the film that reaches UK screens this month as The Taste of Things would seem exactly that baity treat Academy voters used to gobble up: an exquisitely appointed, elegantly sedate period drama in which top-dollar dishes, more common to an awards lunch, are lovingly prepared and set down before the camera. (Foremost hors-d'oeuvre in this field would be Babette's Feast, which took home the Foreign Film Oscar back in 1988.) A comeback of sorts for the elusive Vietnamese writer-director Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo, Norwegian Wood), the new film intends us to rethink our idea of stars along Michelin lines. For a long time - the duration of several courses - flesh-and-blood leads Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel, cast as late 19th century chefs and occasional lovers, are deemed of less note than a well-turned omelette, vast steaming pots of vegetables, a sizzling rack of veal, and the greatest baked alaska ever conceived for the screen. A warning to anyone who made New Year's plans to eat more judiciously in 2024: once again, the movies have cancelled those plans for you.

Yet Tran's true subject - what we're really meant to coo at and swoon over here - isn't consumption, rather the more delicate business of craft and care: what we learn when young, develop as an adult, and ideally pass on to others in our wake. (The scenes of food preparation will shame anyone who's ever reached unthinkingly for the Pop Tart and the Cup-a-Soup.) That sense of craft informs the film as much as it does the food the chefs whip up. Binoche and Magimel, erstwhile lovers in real life and ever-precise actors besides, spoon baby potatoes onto a plate as though handling radioactive material - but then that's what it takes, Taste insists, if you want your late 19th century dining experience to go as these do. It makes for a deeply finicky film, hung up on the bearing of chefs' hats, the sight of men drawing their napkins over their heads to better inhale the scent of freshly broiled game, and the sound of the birds and bees hovering just beyond an eternally open kitchen door. (The sound design here achieves the inverse of The Zone of Interest: it lulls us toward drowsiness, by underlining how everything Tran puts on this table is entirely natural.) Yet just as each dish lingered over proves finite, so too craft itself can disappear into thin air. One look at a suddenly breathless Binoche coming over all faint at the stove, and we know where tonight's menu is leading us: towards a last supper, and the baked meats of a funeral. At which point, having done everything possible to nourish us visually, Tran floats a piquant, emotive question: can there ever be anything left over that might warm us anew?

As a two-hour sit, The Taste of Things is equal parts gorgeous and preposterous, which may explain why it fell at the final Oscar hurdle: more or less completely detached from the modern world, it makes a bold reach for the infinite while still wearing pinny and oven gloves. Whatever you finally made of it, Anatomy of a Fall speaks to a moment when nobody knows what to believe, truth has become a moot point, and conspiracy theories abound. For all its fine, doubtless meticulously sourced detail and kitchenware, Tran's film puts up nothing so bracing, instead pitching itself squarely at the romantics and nostalgics among us; the nostalgia it evokes is for an era when some folks had nowt more pressing to do than cook and eat, to do one thing very well. Baked into this scenario is a poignant awareness that time is a luxury we so often lack: that those we love disappear from our lives before we've had chance to tell them how much we love them. Food here is offered as a sublimated form of affection - a small but sustaining gift to give - but the emotion has been kneaded in deep, and in his fussiness, Tran sometimes threatens to undercut his own argument. (You wonder how much more intimate the chefs could get if they weren't spending all day faffing around in the pantry with shallots.) The drama is at least well served by Binoche, to the end exquisite, albeit in a role that only ever asks her to be exquisite; and by Magimel, so compelling in last year's Pacifiction, and here just about managing to nudge us past his character's alarming physical resemblance to Noel Edmonds. (Like I said, some of it verges on the ridiculous.) It is finally a film about cooking that perhaps only the French could produce: lofty, snobbish (watching its gathered gourmands dissect the pros and cons of an eight-hour meal, you remember why normal folks find critics insufferable), reliably po-faced about l'art de la cuisine, lacking the gentle humour that leavened Big Night or the agreeable saltiness of Ang Lee's rarely revived Eat Drink Man Woman. I learnt one thing (omelettes are best eaten with spoons), sat before much of it as one would a Saturday morning cookery show (and the Waitrose and M&S ads that season them), and then treated myself to a bag of chips on the walk home.

The Taste of Things is now playing in selected cinemas.

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