The Taste of Things Trần Anh Hùng interview

“We ate everything:” Director Trần Anh Hùng on his film The Taste of Things

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel star in this homage to good food and good living.

There’s no great conflict in Trần Anh Hùng The Taste of Things. Meals are made, seasons pass, people eat, and they laugh. Mostly, they cook. In one scene, at an outdoor banquet, Dodin (Benoît Magimel) discusses being in the autumn of his life and how blessed he is to share it with his long-time chef and lover, Eugénie (Juliette Binoche). She laughs but refuses this analysis, “I am in the summer of my life,” she tells him, “and I will die in the summer of my life.” 

The Taste of Things stirs up the drama of the changes of seasons, the passion of leaves turning colours, and the temperature cooling. It’s the background noise of our lives, but the cyclical fervour that feels majestic and even mystical if you pause and pay attention. It’s the drama of the everyday. 

Trần Anh Hùng is a French-Vietnamese filmmaker best known for his works The Scent of the Green Papaya and Norwegian Wood. His latest film takes inspiration from, by his account, a mediocre novel by Marcel Rouff about a famous gourmand. The film premiered earlier this year at Cannes, and the gastronomical attention and the gentle slice-of-life approach earned Trần Anh Hùng the best directing prize at the festival.

Trần Anh Hùng was present earlier this year for the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, as The Taste of Things was presented as the festival’s opening film. 

Justine Smith: What was it about Marcel Rouff’s book, La Vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, gourmet, that inspired you to adapt it for the screen? 

Trần Anh Hùng: In the book, there were some amazing pages about food and how people talk about food. That was what I kept because the story was not very good. I prefer to tell the story of [what happened] before the book, which starts with Eugénie’s death. I prefer to be free to tell another story. 

JS: You’ve adapted many works of literature, Murakami [Norwegian Wood], Alice Ferney [Eternity] and now Rouff. Do you consider yourself an avid reader and that your work is heavily inspired by literature? 

Trần Anh Hùng: Of course, I can only adapt a book if it inspires me or gives me a challenge. These three books are all really different in terms of nature. For example, the Murakami book is more about experience, meaning you have a lot of situations and great characters. You can really choose what you need from the book. Alice’s book is more about expression than experience. You are moved by the book because of the literature itself. It’s about how one sentence works with the next one. It can produce emotion and meaning. The Rouff is about how to adapt a bad book. It’s a kind of bad book with a very good idea that you can develop. 

JS: One of the challenges in the film is that it relies on two sensations unavailable in cinema: taste and smell. How did you tackle this challenge? 

Trần Anh Hùng: If you show it visually and with the sound, and everything is done well, your brain will create what is missing: meaning and things like smell and taste. The brain can compensate and make things real. 

JS: An interesting part of the film is how food plays not just a role as an art form or socializing but as an act of politics. 

Trần Anh Hùng: Someone like Napoleon, who really didn’t like eating, knew food was something really important for diplomacy. He gave Talleyrand, who was taking care of foreign affairs at the time, a castle and a great chef, [Marie-Antoine] Carême, because he knew when you discuss the fate of the world, it is better to do it around a table and a good meal. 

The Taste of Things

JS: You’re collaborating again with editor Mario Battistel. For the opening sequence, it’s nearly 40 minutes of preparation for a grand meal. There are obviously challenges to shooting, preparing and performing such a task, but how do you bring cohesion to it in the editing room?

Trần Anh Hùng: We came back to it all the time. Even when we were happy with the movie from beginning to end, we would go back to this 40-minute opening to find a better way to cut it. It’s a lot of work, not just prepping and shooting and editing, but also the sound editing.

JS: Can you talk about the sound editing?

Trần Anh Hùng: The sound in this movie is quite important because it’s rare that a movie has such a presence of materials like meat, vegetables, fire and water. In this movie, it is saturated by it. All the sounds of the kitchen and the sounds of nature that come into the kitchen replace the music. I felt that I didn’t want to have music in the film even though I love music, it is a great pleasure for me as a filmmaker to create meaning to enhance beauty. The spirit of music here is because of the sounds and the materials. 

JS: Why did you want to make a love story?

Trần Anh Hùng: I wanted to make a movie about my age. I’ve been with my wife since she was 16. It’s a long way, it’s a long time. The feeling of love changed with time. At my age, I have this beautiful feeling of marriage and love, and I wanted to share it in a movie not only because it is rare but because it is challenging to make a film about harmony. It’s often about fighting, passion and confrontation, but marital love is about all trying to find harmony and desire what you already have. This is the essence of marital love, and it’s difficult to express. 

JS: What does a day of shooting look like when you’re doing a lot of cooking? 

Trần Anh Hùng: The food begins during the scriptwriting. We had to do a menu, and after the menu, we worked with Pierre Gagnaire, a great chef; he would do another menu with me. (He’d look at the menu saying things like) I know how to do this, or this, I don’t even know what it looks like. He cooked for me to see how all the dishes were made. During the shooting, he had this very old collaborator who worked with him for over forty years, and his name is Michel [Nave], and he’s (also) on the set every day. He cooked everything, and everything was real. It was also surprising for the crew because normally, when you make a movie about food, sometimes the food was made before and put in the fridge until the moment you need it, and you take it out and reheat it. Here, though, it was all real, and so it was quite complex. All the food was made, but none was wasted. You know, we ate everything. ■

Read our review of The Taste of Things from Festival du Nouveau Cinéma here.

The Taste of Things (directed by Trần Anh Hùng)

The Taste of Things opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 10.

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