The sensory transcendence of a French meal, through the big screen | ET REALITY


In France, a strong appetite is a virtue, if not a heroic trait.

Eating gratifies all the senses: we breathe in the aroma of a delicious dish, delight in the sound of a sizzling steak, or crave the crunch of a crispy baguette. Thus, to fully appreciate the various sensory dimensions of a good French meal is, essentially, to express sophisticated artistic judgment.

Director Tran Anh Hung’s “The Taste of Things” is a 19th-century French romance driven by this understanding of the transcendence of food. The film opened in French cinemas on Wednesday and will be shown on screens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on November 10 before its Oscar qualifying presentation in mid-December.

The film is about a distinguished gourmet, Dodin (Benoît Magimel), and his preternaturally talented chef, Eugénie (Juliette Binoche). They live together in the French countryside and together prepare sumptuous meals for themselves and Dodin’s circle of food-loving friends. Their lives revolve entirely around growing and creating these dishes, which Hung emphasizes through long, elaborate cooking scenes.

When I first saw “Taste of Things” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I felt surrounded by a charmingly vocal audience. The oohing and ahhing were omnipresent and seemingly a visceral response, similar to that elicited by gazing at Monet’s water lilies or being enveloped in the velvety textures of Whitney Houston’s voice. Savoring a tasty meal (or even just watching a meal being prepared on a big screen) brings a type of joy that cannot be explained by logic or reason.

Reviews of the film in France have been mixed. The world Clarisse Fabre He found its blissful atmosphere and near absence of dramatic tension disconcerting and boring. Olivier Lamm of Libération wrote that there is much more to the film than its food porn attractions: it is also about junk food and globalization’s assault on French standards.

The country’s rich gastronomic tradition (and its long history of federal regulation of the quality and authenticity of its wines and products) is a particular source of national pride, and leaders of the French film industry have adopted the gourmand label. This year, “The Taste of Things” was selected as the French submission for the Oscar for best international film over Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winner, “Anatomy of a Fall.”

The decision was met with objections from French critics, who said Triet was punished for the political charge of her acceptance speech at Cannes. However, the selection of Hung’s film is not all that surprising given the selection committee’s obvious bias toward films that comment on the country’s national identity or, from a more cynical point of view, films that offer Oscar voters an idea of ​​tourist-friendly France.

French devotion to the culinary arts is something of a cliché on screen, and Hollywood films like “Ratatouille” and “Chocolat” (the latter, also starring Binoche, made a lot of money in the United States, but did much less well in France). They have drawn on stereotypically French settings, such as a rustic village and a Parisian bistro, to communicate lessons about the revolutionary and unifying powers of food.

More rewarding – and complex – is the 1956 French classic “La Traversée de Paris,” starring the most French of all Frenchmen, Jean Gabin, as an artist turned black market courier in Nazi-occupied Paris. This dark comedy-drama stars Gabin and comedian Bourvil as a feuding duo who must transport four suitcases of smuggled pork across the city while evading authorities and a horde of hungry dogs.

Political instability not only cuts off access to revered food products, it saps the very spirit of those committed to the art of eating. In the 1987 Danish film “Babette’s Feast,” Babette (Stéphane Audran), a French chef, is forced to flee her Parisian neighborhood when the Paris Commune, an insurrectionary government, takes power in 1871.

Seeking refuge in the Danish countryside, Babette moves into a spartan Protestant house run by two Protestant sisters accustomed to eating the same brown fish stew, which has a mud-like consistency. Fourteen years after working with the sisters, Babette miraculously wins the French lottery and, instead of financing his return to France, he spends all of his winnings on a multi-course dinner for the townspeople.

The feast (turtle soup, stuffed quail, rum cake and more) rattles the guests’ brains, while Babette, in the final scene, emerges as an emissary of the sublime. Her culinary skills, her culinary ability to alter the very foundations of what her Danish friends perceived as reality, make her angelic.

At the same time, isn’t fine dining – like certain types of music, literature and art – rather bourgeois? Nothing screams upper middle class more than a proper, formal dinner scene. This is delicious in the films of, for example, Éric Rohmer, who liked to depict the natural choreography of mealtime, the mess of wine glasses and plates of fruit and cheese floating among guests in the middle of a conversation. sinuous

In other movies, dinnertime can seem ridiculous. Consider Luis Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” in which three couples try again and again to enjoy a feast on a white tablecloth, but don’t actually eat. Throughout the film, his courteous manners and refined gestures become increasingly absurd.

Marco Ferreri’s “La Grande Bouffe” sounds like a gluttonous version of “Salo,” linking the pleasure of eating to consumerist society and the crass hedonism of the leisure class. In the film, four friends are literally starving, feasting on an endless parade of shrimp, turkey, roast and sausages while reading excerpts from canonical literary works and, in particular, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s gastronomic bible, “The Physiology of Taste.”

“La Grande Bouffe” is a nauseating showcase and a welcome retort to the glorification of tunnel-visioned food lovers like Brillat-Savarin. Ferreri also had a sweet tooth and reportedly had difficulty avoiding binge eating. His film points the finger at himself and at society in general.

“The Taste of Things” is an adaptation of the 1961 novel “The Passionate Epicurean” by Marcel Rouff, which in turn was inspired by none other than Brillat-Savarin. “The Physiology of Taste” is supposed to be about the science of food, but it often veers into discussions of sex, love and sensuality.

Brillat-Savarin’s passion for food is no different from the passion he might develop for another person, a dynamic that Hung’s film depicts with hypnotic warmth. When I see Eugénie de Binoche, working on a buttery risotto or a vegetable omelet, I am invaded by the sensory memory of something deliciously intimate, like being hugged tightly or the smell of a loved one. At that moment, nothing else seems to matter.

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