The movie is a quiet, gastronomic love story about a cook, Eugénie (Binoche), who has been making beautiful meals for a gourmet, Dodin, for 20 years and sometimes opens the door to her bedroom for him, but continually turns down his proposals of marriage. Tran knew that Magimel, an acclaimed actor who’s huge in France (winner of three César awards as well as best actor at Cannes in 2001 for Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher”), would be perfect for the role, but the 49-year-old and Binoche, 59, had well-known, acrimonious history.
In 1999, Magimel and Binoche met playing lovers and literary icons George Sand and Alfred de Musset in “The Children of the Century” (“Les Enfants du Siècle”). Falling for each other on set had come as a surprise, but two weeks after shooting ended, he moved in. They lived together for five years and have a daughter, Hana, 24, also an actress. In the 20 years since their breakup, though, they had been estranged and had not acted together again.
“We talked. Of course we talk. We have a daughter. But we didn’t see each other much,” says Binoche over Zoom from Paris. “And I wished we had seen each other. It would have been easier, but that was the way it was.”
Binoche had given Tran (the French-Vietnamese director of “The Scent of Green Papaya” and “Cyclo”) her blessing to reach out — without their Dodin, the movie was dead — thinking that Magimel surely would say no. To her surprise, he agreed.
And then one day, they found themselves in the kitchen of a countryside chalet in Anjou, in the western Loire valley, that in 1889 would have been worlds away from the construction of the Eiffel Tower in Paris that same year, living out the alternate life of a couple they could have been, cohabitating and working in harmony across all the years they themselves had missed.
“To finally to be with Benoît in this kitchen, inside me I was laughing and smiling out of joy, of enjoying that finally we can stay in the same room and that’s fine,” Binoche says. “And we can work together and even express feelings. I was very touched by it. And even more touched when my daughter saw the film. [We had] a sense of humor, and that didn’t happen in life that much. So finally it was happening in the film. It’s absurd.”
If you’ve heard of the “The Taste of Things,” which opens in wide release Feb. 14, it’s probably been in the context of the Oscars. Somewhat controversially, France chose this film over “Anatomy of a Fall” to be its submission in the best international film category, its big hope to win that award for the first time in 30 years. In the end, “Taste” didn’t make the cut in that single category, while “Anatomy” has five nominations, including best director and best picture.
To reduce the film to just jockeying for acclaim, though, is to negate the alchemy of what happens on-screen: the sensual creation of elaborate French dishes, reminiscent of “Babette’s Feast,” Binoche’s role in “Chocolat” and even FX’s “The Bear,” combined with the electricity between two talented actors who can conjure up their past love and intimacy and make it palpable through the screen. When I tell Binoche that a friend of mine, a critic, said one can tell that Magimel is still in love with her, she laughs.
“I think there’s love because I think when you love someone once you love the person forever, even though there might be storms and tempests and waves,” Binoche says. “The feeling is deep, and it’s beyond living together or being together. It’s something deeper.”
The opening scene is a nearly wordless 30-minute sequence of Eugénie cooking up an extraordinary feast: the clearest of consommés, turbot cooked in four liters of milk, a magnificent vol-au-vent. There are no cutaways from the act of creating to a miraculously perfect finished product. And it’s steeped in the realistic silence of a working kitchen. No score; just the sounds of butter sizzling, metal clanging on metal, wood crackling in the fire.
“I decided not to do what I saw often in movies about food,” says Tran in a telephone interview. “So I cut out of the movie everything that is what I call ‘the beauty shots’ on the food. … I want everything in movement so that we can see the food being made through actors, their bodies, their hands, their faces.”
Tran had written the script from the gastronomic novel, “La Vie et la Passion de Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet” by Marcel Rouff, but he didn’t know how he would shoot it until he arrived on set with his culinary consultant, three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire, who created all the recipes we see on-screen. Once Gagnaire explained that dishes would need to be served within five to ten minutes of being made, Tran settled on a single camera and highly choreographed movements, like a ballet.
Coming into this process, both Binoche and Magimel were accomplished home cooks, and Gagnaire says that Binoche told him it was important for her to do this small movie “to say thank you to our French culture, to the countryside, the garden and to the work of cooking.” But despite Tran’s insistence that they needed a week of rehearsals, the actors gave him only half a day. And it was a tense one, the first time they’d had a meaningful interaction in decades. (Magimel is now married to the screenwriter Margot Pelletier. Binoche has been proposed to three times, she says, but only at the end of relationships, which seemed silly to her. “It was just a way to retain me,” she says. “Why ask at the end? Why not at the beginning, when everything was so wonderful?”)
“The fact that they were a couple 20 years ago was a little bit scary for me because I knew that they didn’t get along when they split, so it was quite risky to have them together,” Tran says. The beginning was difficult. In that first extensive scene, Eugénie is cooking for Dodin and his friends and needs extra hands in the kitchen. Magimel jumped in on all kinds of tasks, but Binoche expressed that he needed to do less — otherwise the audience would not understand that Eugénie is Dodin’s cook and Dodin is the hands-off mastermind of the dishes.
“And Benoît took it so badly. I thought, ‘This film is going to be a disaster!’” Binoche says. “But actually he melted. And we started eating an omelet together in the first scene, and at the end of the day, I thought, ‘It’s going to be fine.’”
Most of the prep and cooking of finished dishes was done by Gagnaire’s right-hand chef of 40 years, Michel Nave, who stood just out of frame giving verbal instruction to the actors to go faster or move on to the next step. Then Tran cleaned Nave’s voice out of the soundtrack. The director had hired hand doubles but never used them because Binoche and Magimel were so eager to do the food assembly themselves.
“The actors ate a lot and they quite enjoyed it, because when I said ‘Cut,’ they keep on eating,” Tran says. They’d even take the leftovers home. His wife, Nu Yên-Khê Tran, was doing the costumes, and she kept having to let out the seams because everyone kept gaining weight — except Binoche, who lost weight because she was preparing to play Coco Chanel in “The New Look,” which premieres Feb. 14 on Apple TV Plus.
While they were filming, at least, Binoche and Magimel reached a détente. The act of pretending to cook together in that warm kitchen became a conduit for expressing whatever they needed to one another. “Sometimes you think that life is doing it for you when you can’t do it,” Binoche says. “It felt very much like that to me, that this film was allowing us to be able to be humans.”
The entire movie is leading up to the making of a single dish, the pot-au-feu, a quintessentially French beef stew known as a peasant dish and served in homes throughout the country, with regional variations. “It’s the French bibimbap. It’s the French pizza,” Gagnaire says.
In the film, it is Dodin’s way of expressing his love for Eugénie. Watching her parents reconcile and live out a life together on film was overwhelming for Hana, who hid in a bathroom after watching it and then cried in her mother’s arms telling her about the experience. “She was shocked at how much emotion she went through,” Binoche says. “She didn’t expect how healing it was.”
Things between Binoche and Magimel in the real world, though, haven’t suddenly thawed. “No, it went back to where it was!” says Binoche, laughing. “It’s not bad at all. It’s just we don’t communicate. So we communicate when we do interviews together. That’s all. For the moment, that’s the way it is.”
She sounds as if she hopes that this is just an interlude on their way to a better ending. “I have to accept that everybody is different,” she says. “At least we have this film. It’s beautiful. I’m happy for it.”