“Cuisine is an art”: Juliette Binoche and “The Taste of Things” director make magical movie meals

The first 30 minutes of the superb new film, “The Taste of Things,” features Eugenie (Juliette Binoche) sifting, straining, pouring, stirring and spooning as she cooks turbot, crawfish and veal loin, among other dishes. Viewers can practically smell the sauces, feel the weight of the pots, and savor the aromas coming from her kitchen. The film features authentic period recipes that were reviewed by Pierre Gagnaire and overseen by chef Michel Nave.

“When you have pleasure in doing what you do and love, it tastes better and feels better, and looks better.”

The cooking scenes are extraordinary, and director Trần Anh Hùng (“Norwegian Wood”) captures the magic of making the meals. Set mainly at a late 19th century French countryside estate, “The Taste of Things” has Eugenie cooking with (and for) Dodin (Benoît Magimel of “Revoir Paris”), who feeds his gourmet friends. The film is a romantic reunion of sorts for Binoche and Magimel, who were once in a relationship together in real life.

There is not much in the way of plot. Eugenie hopes to train Pauline, a young girl who can detect almost all of the ingredients in her recipes. (A Baked Alaska Eugenie serves practically makes Pauline cry when she first tastes it.) Meanwhile, Dodin hopes to marry Eugenie. He has had a romantic relationship with her during their 20 years together, but she has resisted his proposals, enjoying her independence at being his cook, not his wife. 

“The Taste of Things” depicts the love these characters have for each other and how they express it through their love of food. Hùng and Binoche spoke with Salon about food and their exquisite new film.

Let me start with an icebreaker: Have you ever cried when you ate something?

Trần Anh Hùng: [Laughs] Juliette, please. 

Juliette Binoche: As a child I cried to have sweets. I loved all the sweets.

Hùng: It never happened to me. I know people who have cried when they eat or drink something. Once I was in Harvey Keitel’s apartment and made a tea ceremony for him. When he had the first sip, he started to cry. 

Food can be very powerful. Your film is immensely pleasureful, especially that lengthy opening sequence in the kitchen. There are several other elaborate cooking scenes. Can you talk about creating these episodes? 

Hùng: I wanted to find a setting the actors can work in and move around. The rest came from Juliette and the other actors because everything was about their bodies, and how they appeared on screen. How gracious and how truthful they can be. 

Binoche: When you have the best ingredients to cook . . . and we had really great ingredients. We had Pierre Gagnaire, who chose the recipes, and we had his right hand [Michel Nave], who was helping us. We had this combination with someone who can shoot like Hùng and make choices. All the stakes and expectations were there. Benoît and I, as actors cooking, needed to give grace to the expectation. I know Benoît. He is a very good cook, and I cook myself. I may not be as good as he is. But the pleasure of sharing those moments — and we did share those moments many years ago when we lived together. So, to be able to embody that was emotionally very moving. I remember Hùng always asking me to smile and express happiness _ the commitment Eugenie gives to the food, her love, Dodin and his friends. When you have pleasure in doing what you do and love, it tastes better and feels better, and looks better. The whole combination of being on a set, with my history with Benoît , and to plunge into this world — I’ve never played a cook before — was enlightening, and exciting, and special.

Did making this film help you become a better cook? 

Binoche: It made me feel for a few hours and days that I was a better cook than ever. [Laughs] But then things happen, like shooting another film, so I didn’t keep up with the cooking. I do cook. I don’t think I’m the best cook. I love doing it, but everyday basic life, I am not loving it, because it’s too much. I like to eat, so I try to cook something decent for my children or friends or even myself. 

Hùng: I started cooking after the film. I made the same dish three times, and it was not good. I will keep on trying.

Can you describe the research and food consultation you had for creating the menus of the era and the preparation of the food? It felt very authentic. 

Hùng: During the script writing, I worked with a historian who helped me be precise on the period. When we had a menu, I worked with Pierre Gagnaire. He checked everything and modified some recipes. That’s how we built the menu. He cooked for me for five days in his kitchen so I can see how everything works and I can think of how I can film it later. For the shooting, we had his collaborator, Michel Nave, work with us. He was close to Juliette and Benoît during shooting and he would give them advice on set about how to do things. 

“The Taste of Things” (Courtesy of Carole Bethuel and IFC FIlms)

One of the things I admired was how the camera was often circling around the action, filming it in a way that kept me riveted. Trần, can you talk about your visual approach to the storytelling? The sequences seemed wonderfully choreographed.

Hùng: Cuisine is an art, and I wanted [to shoot in] real time as you see the characters cooking. It was important to give this feeling of continuity and harmony in their work. That’s why I wanted to have all these camera movements mix with the movement of the actors and make it really appealing. It gives the audience a feeling of the momentum of cinema. For me, we should receive a film like we receive a piece of music; that’s why I like this feeling of movement, this feeling that something that never stops. It is to create a kind of music. 

Binoche: We shot until we got one good [take]. We didn’t excessively do it over and over. We didn’t have a lot of time and money to make the film, so we had to be efficient. The choreography was definitely what Hùng wanted to shoot, so we got that very easily. I wanted to make sure that I was the cook to start with. Benoît loved cooking so much and he was frustrated that he wasn’t cooking enough. But that is part of the story. [Later], he is cooking, so we had to find the balance of who was doing what. As we were going along, Hùng was specific about what he wanted. 

“You have to give something of yourself . . . something that happens between your intention and the ingredients.”

I felt a sense of working together and what needs to be done in order to have an amazing dish. It’s specific. There is a chronological way of doing things. It has to be not perfect, but truthful and real. Finding the right gesture. That’s what I love about how Pierre described cooking. He is not trying to put his ego on the plate or be perfect; he is trying to provide the sensuality of the food. He transforms it in a certain way and presents it like his heart on his plate. I loved that. It felt like a piece of art. You have to give something of yourself, but it is not ego, it’s something different, something that happens between your intention and the ingredients.

Hùng: Beside the cooking scenes, the most important thing is the relationship between Dodin and Eugenie, and the beauty of it. It was difficult from the beginning to know how this relationship would be. We discovered it step by step. Juliette and I had some little fights on set about how she saw Eugenie and how I saw her. I saw her a little softer than Juliette did, and she wanted a stronger woman — and she was right. 

Binoche: It’s interesting, because I didn’t feel that. I don’t see from “outside,” I feel from inside. The confrontation between what I learn, my lines, the situation and being in front of Benoît, reveals itself while shooting. I don’t have a vision of my character. I like to empty myself somehow in order to be revealed by what the scene needs. The confrontation we had was on specifics of acting. I asked myself, what can I bring to Hùng? I watched your films and after seeing your last film, “Eternity,” I thought I’m going to bring all the emotions I can bring to him. [Laughs] When you said, “Can you be neutral?” meaning, not act, I was thinking, “No, Hùng, you’re not going to get that on that film. You’re going to get all the emotion I can give to you.” That’s where I have to push you as a director. It is not only the director asking the actor, but the actor pushing the director to where he can go, and where he needs to dare to go. Maybe it was presumptuous for me to interfere in that, but it was my way to resist and allow you to be totally emotional. [Laughs]

Hùng: It was great because this is how I like to work with actors. I don’t want to talk too much about the characters. We have to discover everything on the set. I really enjoy the process.

Eugenie is very independent given the era. She allows Dodin to be with her sexually but does not want to be married or controlled. She also wants to train Pauline but declines the opportunity to eat with Dodin and his friends. Can you discuss how the film portrays women’s roles in this patriarchal society?

Binoche: Eugenie is truthful to herself, and where she excels. She is a cook. She is responsible to be the best cook she can be. She is not going to sit down with boys and eat and enjoy the food. She needs to be cooking. She is the creator of the meal. There is no way that she can sit and relax when she has to think ahead of what she needs to do. You can’t eat what you just cooked. It’s like an actor wanting to sit down in the audience and watch the film you are making. It doesn’t make any sense. You are acting, and you are in the middle of making it. There is no way to relax. It is where she needs to be. 

As a woman, she does not want to get married, because she is so happy. What would she get being married? She doesn’t have that dream. Her dream is being realized with [Dodin], living in his place, and doing her passion of cooking. She is not interested in the rank of bourgeois or aristocrats. It’s the bonne chance, as we say in French. She is acting out of her heart and being, not out of an idea. I like it because it’s genuinely what she needs. She is not betraying her needs. She is living what she wants. It feels natural and real.

I want to talk about the ortolan scene. I am fascinated by this controversial practice. 

Hùng: This is how they eat them in the Southwest of France. It’s a tradition, and today, it’s forbidden. They are a protected species. You can’t eat them anymore. For the film, we had to make an ortolan out of another bird. It was quite a funny scene, because it was something that looks sexual; it’s part of the food. Sex and food are the two sources of sensuality in our life. I wanted to show it here.

Eugenie says she converses with others through the food she makes. At one point, Dodin prepares food for Eugenie to show his love for her. He even asks, “Can I watch you eat?” which is incredibly intimate. What observations do you have about how these characters express themselves through cooking? 

Binoche: Usually, she is cooking, and in the kitchen, and all of a sudden, it is upside down for her. Now she is being put on a pedestal and having candles and flowers and meals. And she’s overwhelmed by the love through food. She is overwhelmed by the specific wines he is choosing for her. He is worshipping her through this act of cooking for her.

You are working with Benoît, an actor you had a relationship with two decades ago. Can you talk about that experience? 

Binoche: I had not seen Benoît for a lot of time — we had a child together — and this was also overwhelming. I took it as a gift, thanks to Hùng. Benoît found the film in him, and we were able to do it together after two months of [anxiety]. For a moment we thought this was not going to be made. We had this fear. Hùng had more fear than I did. He is living everything so intensely because he had been waiting to make this film. Me too, but as a director, I think it is more overwhelming. 

How much of the food you made was eaten and what was done with the leftovers?

Hùng: We ate it all. We had a big team, so we ate everything we cooked on set. 

Binoche: It was generously given to all the crew by Michel Nave.

What foods in the film or not, do you most like and is there anything you dislike or won’t eat?

Hùng: I liked the fish with the hollandaise sauce. It was really very sensual. In your mouth everything melts in an unexpected way. The flavor was quite amazing. The only thing I cannot eat is this Japanese dish, nattō, small [fermented] soybeans. How they make it, it is something I cannot eat. It is the only thing I know that I cannot eat. 

Binoche: My favorite… I have too many favorites… I love a good broth, because a good broth is going to your blood, and it will transform you. It makes you feel at home and energized and light. A good broth is fantastic. And I like sweets. Lots of sweets, and that is why I chose broth! [Laughs]. What I dislike is tripe. All the innards and organ meats. I can’t think of that. It’s brutal!

“The Taste of Things” opens Friday, Feb. 9.

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