Thaïs Takeout: The Taste of Things

Adrien Henri Tanoux, Thaïs, 1920 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nice).

The first page of Henry Fothergill Chorley’s three-volume set of Music and Manners in France and Germany: A Series of Travelling Sketches of Art and Society published in London in 1841 finds the famed critic in a culinary mode, recommending that culture-seekers should “suit the preparations of dinner to the pleasures of the evening: an old fashioned beef-steak and a pint [!] of port should prelude one of Shakespeare’s plays; the risotto and the macaroni of a genuine Italian tratteria [sic] introduce the languid voluptuous cavatinas of the Donnizettis [sic] and the Bellinis; a modicum of champagne tune the spirits to the gay pitch of the Opéra Comique, and an exquisite French dinner (why not at Vefour’s?), unspoiled by barbarian English notions, be performed as a reasonable prologue to a first night at L’Académie Royale”— the last venue  being the home of the immense spectacle that was French Grand Opera.

With this passage ringing in my ears and rumbling in my stomach, I went last night to Trần Anh Hùng’s The Taste of Things, France’s entry in the Best Foreign Feature Film category at the recent Oscars.

The English-language title is a stinker, not so much in the nose, that organ so crucial to taste, as on it.  The French original, La Passion de Dodin Bouffant, is, naturally, more sophisticated, since the title character (played by Benoît Magimel) is a wealthy gourmet living in a handsome chateau in the country shares his life of gastronomic exploration and ecstasy with his beautiful live-in cook Eugénie (Juliette Binoche). Food is the default passion of these French folk, though it activates kindred desires. One passion feeds another. Though the film is set in the late nineteenth century, Dodin is a sensitive modern man, not a pre-MeToo predator who gropes the help. Dodin admires and respects Eugénie, relies on her and loves her. He keeps making gently ardent marriage proposals in spite of her countless rejections.

Of an evening, after the digestif and tisane have been drunk, Dodin ascends the darkened stairs to his cook’s room. If the door is unlocked he enters; if it is locked he turns away. Twice we see Eugénie’s naked backside, framed by Hùng as if a nude painted by Degas. Dodin admires her first, then touches her gently. But before things heat up, Hùng cuts abruptly to the next morning and right back where the real action is: the kitchen.

This laboratory of taste and smell is spacious, light, rationally laid out, and equipped with a killer arsenal of cooper pots and ceramic casseroles, sieves, ladles, and sharp knives with handles worn by experience and affection. In this domain—as, we must suppose, in the boudoir—the touch is tender, expert. With loving finesse, slices of truffle are inserted into the cavity of a plucked fowl, peas from the nearby garden are shelled, the dark skin of a skate-wing is teased from its flaky white flesh. Fabulously rich and subtle broths are poured through cheesecloth or skimmed from pots over joints of meat from nearby pastures, over fish of the sea, over birds no longer of the air. There are no disclaimers in the closing credits: animals were definitely harmed—and then eaten—in the production of this movie.

The American distributors that retitled the movie The Taste of Things must have figured that audiences in this country needed clearer content alerts on the cinematic menu, rather like those abbreviations found in modern restaurants: VE (Vegetarian), VG (Vegan), GF (Gluten-Free).  None apply to this fare, which practically hardens the arteries just to look at it. But the film’s English-language title is the equivalent of slapping a GP on the movie poster: GP for Gastro-Porn, or, for those boasting more elevated palates, GE for Gastro-Erotica.

Yet if one expects, as I did, a sensualist experience that, as Chorley might have recommended had he lived in the age of motion pictures, mingles lush music with radiant images of gorgeous dishes being prepared, plated, consumed, then your ears will go hungry. You won’t even be treated to the slightest garnish of a Saint-Saëns sonata or a Fauré chanson. The Taste of Things should come with that rarest of cinematic labels: MF — Music Free.

Aural recompense abounds. The chateau is deep in the countryside and it is a pleasure to be welcomed into its sound world. As the year is 1889, the railway has come but not yet here. A rooster crows outside the kitchen. Unseen thrushes sing to the accompaniment of rustling artichoke leaves in the garden. Mortal enemies of the avian ranks, cats meow in the barnyard. In the nearby woodland bright with flowers echo the resonant hammerings of a woodpecker.

The kitchen is without electricity or even running water. Here all sounds are human generated. A hefty knob of celeriac gasps when sliced by a knife blade. A metal whisk drums against a copper bowl. Chopped vegetables drop into a pot and begin to sizzle and sing, conducted by the dull scrape of a wooden spoon. Ice cream breathily assents to be scooped into the inside of a baked Alaska (we learn from the film that the French designation scrolls round the poplar north to omelette norvégienne), which, when the time is just right, sighs into flame.

Sound becomes a sensual surrogate for taste and smell.

Though the film is without a soundtrack score, Dodin refers twice to music in two of his many philosophical discourses on food and life. A teenage girl, the niece of the scullery maid, shows herself to have a preternatural palate: she can identify almost all of the many ingredients of a complex consommé prepared by Eugénie to Dodin’s specification. Later he remarks to his beloved chef that musical prodigies can demonstrate perfect pitch by the age of three and read a complicated score by five, but no one can become a gourmet before the age of forty. Later when elucidating the hierarchy of tastes, he compares a soup to a sonata, the first theme taking prominence, while the subsidiary motives should lend their voices to the whole but do not steal attention. These ponderous pronouncements fittingly reflect Dodin’s gastro-centric views of art, though his over-egged musical analogies make us thankful that no postprandial chanson is allowed to grace the chateau and spark another synesthetic sermon.

Surprisingly, Dodin’s house appears to be without a piano, even if music was long a crucial element of dining. Indeed, the French invented a term for it— musique de table. The Taste of Things is most compelling in the virtuosic culinary performance, like a kind of chamber music in a period kitchen, that captures the joys of practice, preparation, work, attentiveness, the sharpening and indulgence of the senses, concentration, consummation, and the paradoxical timelessness and ephemerality of art and love. Perhaps Dodin believes actual music would be a distraction, and perhaps he’s right.

But then, just as we leave the kitchen for the last time and a few seconds before the closing credits roll, otherworldly music intrudes. Hùng just couldn’t help himself from lifting the lid off of that last ornate tureen, untouched throughout, the one that contains (no surprise) the simmering seductions of the “Méditation” from Jules Massenet’s Thaïs. Ironically, this spaciously hedonistic piece is all about resisting the sensuality it shamelessly traffics in. In the opera, an ascetic monk has put his case for the renunciation of sin to the libertine title character and during this orchestral interlude she meditates on her decision, ultimately agreeing to reject her voluptuous ways and check in for a lifetime stay at a nearby convent. It goes without saying that the evangelizing monk later falls prey to his own repressed erotic desires, hastening at opera’s close from his monastery to Thaïs’s nunnery where she is (no spoiler alert necessary) on her deathbed.

Massenet’s orchestral original channels Thaïs’s wavering thoughts through a quavering violin accompanied by harp. A full battery of strings, along with clarinet and horns, abetted by throbbing timpani, stoke the urgent desire she contends with in a surging middle section, before a full chorus, lips sealed, hums her towards the Lord’s loving arms.

Hùng wisely resisted the violin and orchestra version, and instead opted for Andrew van Oeyen’s performance of a piano transcription which cannot indulge in vibrato or swooping portamento, since these strong seasonings are not available on the Steinway. Without these flavors, this Méditation is more restrained than the original recipe, but it is still maudlin, cloying, served up way to often as the epitome of lovelorn French longing.

Perhaps Hùng thought there would be comfort in the cliché, but after two hours of succulent sophistication, this final emulsion leaves a sickly-sweet aftertaste in the ears and on the tongue.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at