Taste the screen: the enduring appeal of food movies

<span>Juliette Binoche in The Taste of Things.</span><span>Photograph: Carole Bethuel/AP</span>
Juliette Binoche in The Taste of Things.Photograph: Carole Bethuel/AP

An old Hollywood adage warns novice directors away from working with children, animals or water; a worthy addition to this list would be food, an equally uncooperative quantity in the film-making process.

Related: The Taste of Things (aka The Pot-au-Feu) review – Juliette Binoche foodie romance is an invitation to drool

It’s easy enough to gussy up a roast chicken with hairspray for that perfectly basted sheen, or to blow cigarette smoke over it as a dupe for steam straight from the oven. But to portray the action of cooking, as the Cannes prize-winner Trần Anh Hùng does in the bravura opening scene of his new film The Taste of Things, requires far more in the way of forethought, patience and improvisation. As the private chef Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) bustles about preparing a multi-course feast for her employer, the renowned restaurateur Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel), she broils fish and pan-sears lettuce hearts with the same execution as Hùng tracking her motions – with a smoothness and confidence concealing all the effort involved.

Ingredients don’t take instruction like actors, offering only one chance to capture a telegenic doneness before turning soggy or burnt. “Eugénie and Dodin worked together for almost 20 years, so there is a sense of harmony in their work,” Hùng explained in an interview for Filmmaker Magazine. “I wanted to convey this harmony to the audience. That’s why I had this very complex camera movement mixed with their movement in the kitchen, so that I can create a kind of ballet to express this idea of harmony.” The ravishingly sensuous sequence, like the meal it chronicles, represents an expert artisan’s labor of love.

Movies about food – its physical properties, its history, its philosophy – provide comfort much in the same way as food itself, its rich tactility reaching audiences on a visceral level impressive for light on a screen. A glance at any given McDonald’s commercial offers a bite-sized sample of this Pavlovian effect, when the image of juicy beef and crisp slices of tomato induces an instantaneous hankering for a big, greasy burger. Hùng’s epicurean romance also cuts to the import deeper than hunger that’s made all the great cinema de cuisine stick to viewers’ ribs: the notion that a dish can provide nourishment not just biological but emotional. It all comes down to preparation, less in the polish of technique and more in the intention motivating it. Cliche as it may be, any dedicated screen gourmand knows that the secret ingredient really is love.

Speaking of fast-food advertisements, they’ve recently taken a growing number of formal cues from online-native ASMR videos, counting on extreme closeups and ultra-hi-def sound effects to sell the product over narrated ad copy. Crunches, sizzles and sloshes trigger an auto-sensory response on an involuntary level, a phenomenon that Peter Strickland repurposed to complex ends in 2022’s brilliant, bizarre Flux Gourmet. At the Sonic Catering Institute, experimental musicians plug modular synthesizers into vegetables and vats of soup to create avant-garde music, their engagement with their creative medium both instinctive and conceptualized, bodily and cerebral. They can use their gloppy, messy artform as a channel for ego, vulnerability, jealousy, confession or flirtation, the lone constant in their compositions being intention of meaning. As soon as they decide that they want food to stand for more than mere sustenance, it does.

The movies have historically taken this profound personal connection as second nature, the medium’s understanding oriented around softer, more affectionate forms of intimacy. The ritual process of small-batch cooking, the diligence and attention to detail it requires, inherently implies investment in a second person to be fed. Conversely, cooking for one is so unbearably depressing because it confronts the cook with their loneliness, their lack of a worthy receptacle for all they have to give. In Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig’s hapless lonely heart spends all night preparing an immaculate cupcake with hand-frosted flower petals, only to sigh and listlessly bite into it herself in her kitchen. Likewise, the cinema tends to read a bummer mood into de-personalized eating, a character’s rock bottom marked by frozen microwavables or fast-food chains. (Lego Batman contemplates the existential void of his empty life while nuking a lobster thermidor for two minutes. As ever, it’s funny because it’s true.)

Every food story is a love story, whether between actual paramours (as in the fueled-by-ramen melodrama Tampopo), brothers (as in the rowdy restaurant comedy Big Night), or a woman and herself (as in the soul-searching foodie travelogue Eat Pray Love). In what feels like every romcom, the leads telegraph that they’re growing comfortable with one another by spending the night in and cooking, to the point that the pitch-perfect parody They Came Together includes an obligatory teasy tasting of tomato sauce. Even the worst examples can still strike a genuine emotional chord in the small significance of these gestures of altruism, coaxing a simple beauty from extraordinary devotion put into quotidian terms. 2008’s The Ramen Girl, in which the proud people of Japan help Brittany Murphy get over a breakup by teaching her how to make noodles, earnestly believes in the sacred communion between chef and diner underneath all its peppy orientalism.

The Taste of Things serves up this bond as its main course, telling the story of Eugénie and Dodin’s courtship through the love language of dinner. The overwhelming desire they harbor for one another comes through in the indulgent richness of French cooking, an equivalency crystallized with a dizzying match cut from the delicate curves of a braised pear to those of Eugénie’s unclothed posterior. Every plate they assemble, exchanged between the connoisseurs like love letters, has the sway of an aphrodisiac for the care in its making. Most couples rely on music to say what they don’t have the words to; for Eugénie and Dodin, the hearty beef stew known as the pot-au-feu can accomplishes the same thing. Daily yet divine, cooking works as a synecdoche for the whole of a life spent in commitment to someone else, each morning and night an opportunity for quiet, unremarkable acts of devotion.