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​Take Time To Savor It: Trần Anh Hùng on The Taste of Things

Exquisite and profound, Trần Anh Hùng’s “The Taste of Things” is all but destined to be remembered as one of the great films about food, love, and the people who share it.

Set in late-19th century France, this slow-simmering romance (in limited theaters; expanding wide Feb. 14) charts the enduring relationship between a noted French gourmand, Dodin Bouffant, played by Benoît Magimel, and his personal chef, Eugénie, played by Juliette Binoche. Committed to the culinary arts, these two share a love language in their dedication to creating sumptuous yet delicate meals for themselves, each other, and a coterie of friends.

Dodin and Eugénie’s principal bliss lies in the creation of these epicurean delights, their steady and patient labor giving rise to profusions of gastronomical excellence that exist only for a short while. This practice is, for them both, a form of physical and spiritual nourishment, a creative transcendence that brings them into communion, not just with one another but with the beautiful ephemerality of the seasons of their lives.

The film’s first half hour, savoring each moment in the preparation of several such delicacies, plays out as a Michelin-starred ballet, a series of motions by artists in their element—chopping fresh vegetables, braising lettuce, boiling crayfish, poaching turbots in milk and white wine, searing rare loins of veal, stirring sauces and clarifying broths—as the sizzling, bubbling sounds of the kitchen provide aromatic accompaniment. In how he captures the choreography of their cooking, Trần invites us to partake in Dodin and Eugénie’s pleasure; through the rhapsodically sensual, gliding motions of Jonathan Ricquebourg’s camera, his film embodies their same desire to elevate daily ritual into something divine. 

For the Vietnamese-born director, who moved to Paris when he was 12, food has long served as an inspiration; over 30 years ago, his debut feature “The Scent of Green Papaya” amplified the sensory details of domestic Vietnamese life to capture the inner world of a servant girl (Trần Nữ Yên Khê, the director’s wife) as she cooked, cleaned, and came of age. The textures and emotions associated with food have been close to Trần’s heart since. 

“I’d been looking for a subject related to gastronomy, as a profession and an art,” he says, of where “The Taste of Things” originated. He found the character of Dodin in Marcel Rouff’s 1924 novel “La passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet” but chose “to tell the story that took place before the book” instead, freeing him to focus on the bond between Dodin and Eugénie, whose role was smaller on the page. “I wanted to show, at the same time, love and friendship,” he says.

Formerly titled “The Pot-au-Feu,” “The Taste of Things” premiered in competition at the 76th Cannes Film Festival, where Trần was named Best Director. After IFC Films acquired the film for U.S. distribution, it was selected as the French entry for Best International Feature at the 96th Academy Awards and made the 15-film shortlist, though it was not nominated. In between, “The Taste of Things” was invited to screen at various U.S. film festivals, including in New York and Chicago; this conversation with Trần for RogerEbert.com was conducted in two parts and has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

You shot the cooking scenes for this film with a single camera, which creates the sense that we’re watching meals come together in real time. Coordinating the choreography of that cooking can’t have been easy; how did you work to synchronize actors’ movements with that of the camera?

Normally, when I shoot a movie, I never prepare anything. I don't rehearse with actors. I always come to set and then determine how I’d like to shoot each scene. Everything’s improvised. For the opening sequence of this film, however, I had to rehearse with my team. I filmed it on my iPhone to get an idea of how the camera would need to move, of how the characters would need to move through the kitchen. We showed this to the actors, and then we shot it from the beginning. It was quite difficult, of course, because of everything that we cooked. When we had to film a scene again, we needed new sets of ingredients. This was quite complex. But I always need to believe in what I try on set, that it will be interesting and precious at the end, to feel confident to go with this way of working.

You’ve spoken admiringly about the Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi, and there’s a stunning sequence late in “The Taste of Things” that evokes “Ugetsu.” Can you tell me a little about his influence, or cinematic influences in general, on your filmmaking? 

When I was young and studying filmmaking, Mizoguchi was really important to me, because of his long shots and his camera movements. It's something that has stayed with me. I also loved Westerns, and also musicals. There was something so physical to Westerns, how they fight with their fists, fall into water, and end up covered with blood and mud. The gentle side of physicality in film is in musicals: when a boy meets a girl, then suddenly you start to dance, and everything is about movement, about the body. This was, for me, quite, a marvel to see. 

When I'm making movies, I always think it needs to be very physical. I love car chases in action films, for this reason. It’s all about the body, about how much the body can take, from the shocks it absorbs. In “The Taste of Things,” when I decided to show scenes of characters cooking, I knew I needed to see bodies in action, that it needed to be sensual and gracious. These inclinations come from musicals and also from Mizoguchi. All the cooking scenes needed to be like ballet and like a car chase; you need to be dynamic. I’d tell my cinematographer that we had to go closer and taste everything we were filming, to bite it. It had to be soft and at the same time violent. 

The film’s editing, where you choose to end one scene and begin another, feels important in conveying this sensation, as well. It’s decisive, even abrupt, when you match cut one shot to another, sometimes pleasurably and other times with deep sadness.

Yes, this is what I really love: that abrupt sensation. What I like in cinema is to convey a feeling of momentum, of musicality. In a piece of music, sometimes you hear an abrupt break [in the melody] before it starts up again, perhaps differently. The editing is all about this idea of being abrupt, because that abruptness has a physical feeling and meaning to it. 

Dodin and Eugénie are so physically present, as well, in their preparation of these meals, and you capture how focused they are in each action. We spend more time watching their movements in the kitchen, seeing their hands working, than we do looking at the finished dishes. There’s such careful attention to their labor. 

What I love in films and in life is to see people working, to see their labor. This is something that will always be beautiful to me, to see hands at work. I always remember Kirk Douglas and the way his hands moved as he buttoned his jacket. I don’t remember the film, but I remember his hands. It’s so beautiful. When hands are cooking, it’s always so pleasurable for me, and I would like to share this pleasure with the audience. 

That’s why, seeing their faces, we see that they’re enjoying what they’re doing at times; when Dodin is cooking for Eugénie at one point, we can also see he’s very anxious, because he needs to surprise her. How do you surprise a very good cook? It’s not easy. We see all this on his face, and at the same time we see that his hands are working. He’s doing something for her.

Each meal prepared in “The Taste of Things” speaks somehow to the emotions that Dodin and Eugénie seek to express, from the carp roe omelet she prepares to fortify them ahead of preparing the vol-au-vent, to the roasted chicken he stuffs with slices of thin truffle, to challenge and seduce her. How did you finalize the menu for this film?

It was a long process. In working with Pierre Gagnaire, [a French chef who served as the film’s culinary director,] I told him to find dishes that would be cinematic to film. The first meal needed to appear generous. In today’s highest-quality restaurants, all the portions are quite small and beautifully plated. I wanted to return to a more generous type of dish for what you see at the beginning of the film, with the vol-au-vent. 

At one point, Dodin prepares a meal for Eugénie, and the process of selecting that meal was different. As Eugénie is a very good cook, and we are at the end of the 19th century—and at one point, Dodin discusses the importance of this period, saying that only 13 years elapsed between the death of Antonin Carême, the ancestor of French cuisine, and the birth of Auguste Escoffier, who brought French cuisine into the modern era—Dodin is searching for something else, something that will surprise her. What we see him cook on screen is the beginning of modern French cuisine. He offers her something different, and everything he does for her is quite modern. 

Dodin also prepares, as a dessert for Eugénie, a succulent poached pear enveloped in sculpted sheets of nougatine. You don’t show us the full dessert until the end of the scene, which allows us to focus more on his passion in the act of cooking for her. 

I wanted to give my audience a sense of surprise. From the beginning, I chose to hide the dessert, not to show it, to create a desire on the part of my audience to see it. At the end, I wanted to give the audience a sense of surprise upon finally seeing the poached pear, especially as I then cut to her body on the bed. There are two surprises in a row, and those surprises needed to be very soft and tender. 

When Pierre Gagnaire made this dessert for me, as we prepared to shoot the film, he didn’t anticipate how amazed I would be by the moment when he shaped the [nougatine,] because it was very delicate. You take it out of the oven, it’s very hot, and you have to shape it in your hands. I knew at that moment that this step would be the most important part of the dish to film—and that it would be interesting to watch Benoît play with it. You can’t really act in a moment when your fingers are burning. When you’re a professional cook, you have a special relationship with handling very hot ingredients, and so it was enjoyable to watch Benoît try this.

As a filmmaker, you’ve often depicted cooking as a love language. From where does this interest originate? 

I think that it comes from my childhood, and from my mother. My parents were workers, and we were not rich. The place where I lived, in a remote town in the center of Vietnam, was very ugly; everything that I saw around me was not beautiful. The only beauty that I could see was in my mother’s kitchen. When I think about the past, I always think of that. It was a dark place, with a wet floor and a charcoal fire, and walls made of tin. You could hear everything happening in the house next to you. There was an opening in the roof, to let the light in. When my mother would come home, after going to the market, you could see all these colors: the fish, the fruits, the vegetables. All of this was beautiful. And when she cooked for us, at the end, it was also very beautiful, because you’d see what she’d made and all its colors. That gave me my first education about aesthetics, I think; it comes from that. 

That's why, later on, food was always something that was important for me. I like simple food, because of that period, when we didn’t have money to have rich food. Years ago, I discovered that, in Italian cuisine, they have colatura, which has the same flavor as Vietnamese fish sauce. When you taste it, it has the same flavor, and they make it the same way but with more precise Italian methods. It’s expensive, perhaps 200 times more expensive than Vietnamese fish sauce. I bought some. At home, I took a piece of pork belly, boiled it, and then I cut and sliced it thinly, and with my children and my wife we tried to taste the difference between the Italian fish sauce and Vietnamese fish sauce. At the end, we agreed the colatura was much better, because they had made it in small batches and aged it in oak wood barrels. Everything came together slowly, and it turned out better as a result.

In an interview conducted around the release of “The Scent of Green Papaya,” you’re quoted as saying, “Love empties servitude of its alienating content.” The relationship between Dodin and Eugénie, both of whom express their love through cooking, feels reflective of this idea as well. Their dynamic is one of profound love and equality. 

There’s nothing in the film that I wanted to be very political. This is not at all the case. It’s only about individuals, how they meet each other, and how they do something together that creates a bond between them. If this bond is of a strong quality, because of how they both are as human beings, then that’s enough for me. I don’t want to [impose] greater ideas onto it; it’s about the person-to-person relationships. I have the feeling that, when you spend a lot of time with someone at work, and especially if you’re doing creative work, then you cannot avoid the creation of this bond. You develop feelings for the other person. It’s something that is very natural. The film is more about how to keep this feeling of love alive through time. 

Your wife and collaborator Trần Nữ Yên Khê starred in “The Scent of Green Papaya” and has been a part of every film you’ve made, including “The Taste of Things,” to which she contributed art direction and costume design. The film is also dedicated to her. Tell me about that collaboration.

It’s very natural for us. From the beginning of my career making movies, with “The Scent of Green Papaya,” she was already working with me on the set. In addition to starring in the film, she helped to paint sets and draw on windows. Step by step, it became more and more official. The first time she officially did everything was on “Norwegian Wood.” At the same time, she was the set designer, production designer, artistic director, and also costume designer. We saw that it was possible for her to do all that. I always rely on her.

Everything you see on screen is her decision. When we shot the film, she was sitting next to me. She controlled everything. While I’d be doing something with the actors, she’d go and change whatever she needed to in the shot, to make it better. I think that she can only take care of the beauty of the film, though. For the rest, it’s another story. I mean, the language of cinema is something that belongs to the filmmaker. On set, the only person who knows what the movie will be is the director. Even the director of photography, [Jonathan Ricquebourg,] cannot know. And that’s because I discover things as we go, step by step. 

What you’re describing is also the relationship between Dodin and Eugénie, who each have established roles to play in the kitchen and outside of it. Still, their process is highly collaborative, and they’re artists who share a medium. 

This movie is extremely personal, and it’s really about me and my wife. The story by itself was inspired by her. That’s why it’s dedicated to her. I feel that it’s my life with her that I show in the movie, somehow. 

What was your experience of working with Benoît Magimel and Juliette Binoche (who were once a couple in real life, and share a daughter) to build their characters? 

They are great actors and great professionals, so it was quite easy to work with them. One thing that’s true is that we don’t have a lot of scenes with them interacting with each other. You see them more in the kitchen, when they’re cooking. They spend time there. So, for me, it was more about building the story to have a certain structure that gives meaning to their relationship. The expressivity that you feel from their relationship comes more from the structure of the story than from any performance between them.

When I work with actors, I always say they don’t need to bring too much intention to what they are doing. For a line of dialogue, don't put too much meaning into it. The meaning is already there. Instead, what I like them to do is to taste the line before saying it. Take time to savor it, so the audience will linger on their lips, waiting for the line to come out. The meaning is in the script. What I like is to have the flavor of a scene, the sensuality of it. This is another way to act. 

In between making films, you make ceramics, another art form that involves working with your hands. Do you see any connection between your filmmaking practice and your ceramic practice? 

It’s about this idea of crafting a physical object. When I make a movie, at the end, I have a DVD. It's not really exciting. I think, to have a DVD. That's why. It was so frustrating for me to only have DVDs that I started to make ceramics. I remember, when I was a child, when my father gave me a bath, he once told me that I was so dirty that I had enough earth caked on me that he could sculpt a small elephant from it. When he was young, he was really good at making small animals out of mud that he found everywhere around him. With my memory of this story in mind, I decided to try to make ceramics.

Starting from nothing, it took me about a year and a half to reach this point where I could make everything you see on my Instagram. I discovered how interesting it was to work with my hands. Sometimes, your hands hold the memory of how you had moved them to make a ceramic bowl, for example. If you don’t keep working and return to it two or three months later, it’s very difficult to try to make a bowl from the earth again. But your hands remember. 

“The Taste of Things” opens in limited theaters Feb. 9, expanding wide Feb. 14, via IFC Films.

Isaac Feldberg

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for nine years and hopes to stay at it for a few more.

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