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CIFF 2023: The Taste of Things, Fallen Leaves, La Chimera

A few weeks ago, it was announced that France’s Oscar committee had elected to choose Tran Anh Hung’s “The Taste of Things” as its representative in this year’s race for the Best International Feature Film prize. This came as a shock to many observers since another film that was in the running, Justine Triet’s "Anatomy of a Fall," had already won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and, therefore, seemed to have the inside track for the honor. The real shock, however, is how a movie this cloddish managed to get into the running in the first place. 

Based on Marcel Rouff’s 1924 novel The Life and Passion of Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet and set during the Belle Epoque, the film tells the story of Dodin (Benoît Magimel), a wealthy man who appears to do little more in his life than contemplate and consume elaborate meals that he then proceeds to consume with gusto, often in the company of a group of like-minded male friends. He is aided in these gastronomic adventures by his cook of 20 years, Eugenie (Juliette Binoche), who shares with him a preternatural feel for food and a willingness to spend each day utilizing a grocery cart’s worth of ingredients to make one sauce. He would like to marry her, but she demurs, though not for any reasons that she or the film is willing to articulate. 

What is especially astonishing is that for as slight and insubstantial as this narrative might seem, Tran (who also penned the screenplay) stretches things out to a running time of just under 2 1/2 hours, a large chunk of it devoted to endless scenes of the preparation and consumption of these elaborate meals. At least the food—all lovingly presented by cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg—is memorable, which is more than can be said for the central characters. Binoche and Magimel are two of the biggest names in current French cinema, but they barely seem to register here, thanks to the nonentities that they have been asked to play. Even though the two were once a couple in real life, they fail to generate any sparks in their scenes that might have helped make this believable.

The weird thing about “The Taste of Things” is that it comprises ingredients that I would normally go for in better circumstances. I love French food, j’adore Juliette Binoche, I have admired a number of Tran’s earlier films, such as “The Scent of Green Papaya” and “Eternity” and I am even down for long movies (to the point where I watched “Killers of the Flower Moon” and the Taylor Swift concert film on the same day), provided something of interest happens during them. However, something went wrong in the recipe here. When it finally ended, I found myself hungry for a good meal and a better movie.

A love story that proves infinitely easier to swallow (and this concludes the food-related jokes) is “Fallen Leaves,” the new and weirdly beguiling delight from Aki Kaurismäki that is Finland’s entry in the International Film Oscar derby. The initial scenes go back and forth to give us glimpses into the lives of two menial workers struggling to get by in the bleak and unforgiving urban landscape that is contemporary Helsinki. Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) spends his days sandblasting metalware on a desolate factory floor while constantly swigging from a hidden bottle of booze to make it all more bearable. Ansa (Alma Pöysti) finds herself drifting through a series of dead-end jobs that she constantly loses, often due to bureaucratic nonsense—she gets fired from a grocery store position when she is caught taking home some expired food she was supposed to throw out. Even when they aren’t working, there is little relief—every time someone turns on the radio, they get a barrage of reports of atrocities committed in the Ukraine.

One night, Ansa and Holappa are taken by respective friends Liisa (Nuppu Koivu) and Huotari (Janne Hyytiäinen) to a karaoke bar, where Huotari immediately begins hitting on Liisa. While that is going on, Holappa begins to notice Ansa, and while he acts aloof for most of the evening towards her, the two eventually decide to make plans to see each other again. However, after their big date—where they take in a screening of Jim Jarmusch’s apocalyptic zombie comedy “The Dead Don’t Die”—Ansa gives Holappa her phone number, which he almost immediately loses. Since he never quite caught her name and has no idea how to get a hold of her, Holappa hits upon the plan of hanging outside the theater they went to in the hopes that their paths will cross again. Astonishingly, this gambit works, but no sooner has that obstacle been overcome than a new one develops in the form of Holappa’s drinking—she is against it, having already lost a father and brother to alcoholism, and he has no interest in quitting, not even for someone for whom he has genuine feelings.

This is Kaurismaki’s first film since announcing his retirement in 2017 following the premiere of his previous feature, “The Other Side of Hope.” With this project, he has not only made an unexpected return but has made a film that harkens back to the trio of films he made early in his career—“Shadows in Paradise” (1986), “Ariel” (1988) and “The Match Factory Girl” (1990)—that have been dubbed his “Proletariat Trilogy” and have put their focus on the lives of working-class characters simply trying to eke out a living and find some degree of happiness. Outside of a few technological advances, so little has evidently changed in the ensuing decades that this film could rightly be considered the fourth part of the trilogy, a Kaurismakian concept if ever there was one.

Happily, Kaurismaki’s filmmaking skills have not slackened in the interim. While not quite as bleak as those earlier movies, he does an intriguing job of taking classic rom-com tropes and finding new ways of approaching them. The deadpan style of humor he has always favored ends up fitting in nicely with the romance that he has conjured up (aided in no small part by the lovely performances by Vatanen and Poyta, who make for a very winning couple), and film buffs will enjoy his little in-jokes and homages to his favorites. Besides the shout-out to Jarmusch, this film has the nerve to make two separate references to the works of Robert Bresson within the same scene. At the same time, he gets us to care enough about Holappa and Ansa as characters so that when the obstacle of his alcoholism rears its head, we are invested in how the story will resolve itself. 

Another welcome return is that of Alice Rohrwacher, whose latest effort, the alternately bizarre, amusing, and lovely “La Chimera,” marks her first narrative feature since 2018’s “Happy as Lazzaro.” Set in the early 1980s, the film is focused on Arthur (Josh O’Connor), a one-time archaeological scholar who misused his almost preternatural ability to sense where long-buried Etruscan treasures have been buried in the Tuscan countryside by falling in with a strange gang of homeless locals that helped him dig them up in the middle of the night to sell them to a mysterious dealer. This is not exactly shadowy work, as it turns out—most locals know what is happening and have done the mental gymnastics required to justify such morally and ethically dubious actions.

As the film opens, Arthur has just been released from prison after doing a stretch for grave-robbing and returns to the same Tuscan area to the crumbling manor owned by aging aristocrat Flora (Isabella Rossellini), who is the mother of Benjamina, the long-lost love of his life who everyone assumes, save for Flora, to be dead and whose presence continues to haunt his dreams. Although his old cohorts are delighted to see him and pick up where they left off, Arthur initially has no interest in returning to his sleazy former ways. Inevitably, the lure of all that hidden treasure just begging to be found proves to be too much, and he soon finds himself digging around again—possibly because rooting amongst the belongings of the dead helps to bring him closer to the memory of Benjamina. Making things more complicated this time around is the presence of Italia (Carol Duarte), who is Flora’s singing protege (and unpaid maid) and who offers him the potential promise of a new life spent entirely among the living.

As you can probably surmise, “La Chimera” is a bit of an oddity. On one level, it works as a strange, shaggy-dog tale that feels like an art-house take on an Indiana Jones or Lara Croft adventure sans all of the thrilling action set-pieces. On another level, it serves as a quiet but piercing indictment of the ethically sketchy ways in which museums, despite their veneer of respectability, go about acquiring the antiquities that they then go on to proudly display to visitors. The film also finds Rohrwacher doing her sort of cheerful rummaging through the relics of cinema itself, ranging from her use of several different film ratios to speeding up the action at certain points to remind of the silent era to the skillful deployment of Rossellini. Who, of course, serves as both a screen icon in her own right and a living connection to one of the key parts of Italian film history.

It may be a little uneven sometimes, especially when shifting from comedy to more serious concerns. And yet, it has a loopy charm that makes up for those occasional tonal inconsistencies. This film is clever, ambitious, and funny throughout, but it also works as an intelligent meditation on our attitudes toward life, love, and death.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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