It starts humbly, a gnarled turnip emerging from the soil in the early morning light; carrots and lettuces collected and assembled alongside fish and poultry and cream in a large country kitchen.
They are ready to be transformed with the precise applications of fat and heat in Tran Anh Hung's "The Taste of Things," with Juliette Binoche portraying a cook named Eugenie. But she's much more than a cook — she's the collaborator and companion of Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel) a famed (fictional) gourmand in 1885 France, called "The Napoleon of the culinary arts." Though he gets the hefty moniker, Eugenie is his muse, his sounding board and his inspiration.
Eugenie cooks with a small smile and the calm, confident movements of a battlefield medic, wrestling flesh and flour into fine food. Cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg's camera follows her journey around and around the kitchen in long takes, peering into pots and bowls, capturing her bold movements and instruction to her assistant Violette (Galatéa Bellugi). Dodin jumps in as a sous-chef, taking the time to teach a young girl, Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), a potential apprentice with a perfect palate.
With skill and ease, Eugenie delivers a feast of rustic, yet complex culinary delights to Dodin and his compatriots: consommé that makes the men hum in reverence, a show-stopping vol-au-vent (pastry stuffed with a creamy, savory stew), turbot poached in milk, roasted veal loin with braised cabbages, and that miracle of scientific reaction, a baked Alaska. Dodin and his friends can barely contain their moans of pleasure as they sample each decadent dish, and the sensuality with which Hung presents the experience is utterly breathtaking. You'll want to cheer at each sauce.
Eugenie is a technician, a pragmatist, while Dodin is the romantic, a pleasure-seeking hedonist with a poet's mind, and a dedicated patron of her arts, including even the simplest omelets. He proposes to her regularly, but all she will concede to is a late-night knock at her bedroom door. But theirs is a beautiful partnership, cemented in a love for the intellectual, corporeal and emotional pleasures of food.
"The Taste of Things" is an adaptation, of sorts, of Marcel Rouff's 1924 novel "The Passionate Epicure," fleshing out the relationship between the gastronome and his cook. French Vietnamese filmmaker Hung has mentioned that the film is also in part inspired by his own marriage: His wife, Tran Nu Yen Khe, starred in his first four films, and is the costume designer on "The Taste of Things."
There is an additional layer of interpersonal history that adds meaning to this text, as well: Binoche and Magimel were married 20 years ago and share a daughter. This is their first time working together since they fell in love on the set of the 1999 film "The Children of the Century."
The film is a celebration of food, the kind that achieves a balance between simplicity and decadence. But food is just a vessel for the love story in "The Taste of Things," one we don't see often enough, of a sweet, egalitarian love, built on respect and companionship, savored sweetly in the autumn of life.
Ultimately, Eugenie poses to Dodin a very important question: "Am I your cook or your wife?" He answers correctly, but if you want to know the right answer, you'll have to take in the sensual charms of "The Taste of Things."
'The Taste of Things' 4 stars out of 4 Rated: PG-13 for some sensuality, partial nudity and smoking. Where: In theaters on Feb. 12.