There’s something to be said for a simple dish made with the finest ingredients by a trusted hand. Just as a perfect omelet made by a lover is more satisfying than an eight-hour banquet hosted by a prince, so it follows that a film like “The Pot-au-Feu” works, not in spite of, but Why focuses on executing its basic premise with entrancing attention to detail. This is a story about love and food, which he presents as the same thing.
In the unseen, it was always a mouth-watering prospect: two delightful French actors – Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel – feed each other in Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of a 2014 graphic novel notorious for being food porn. The promise of this set-up is eagerly delivered as the kitchen of a 19th-century French manor house becomes the stage for the most elaborate foreplay you’ve ever seen. What “Call Me By Your Name” did for peaches “The Pot-au-Feu” does for pears in syrup.
The Prince of Eurasia, courting her taste buds, refers to Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel) as “the Napoleon of the culinary arts”. Though he has a suite of loyal gourmands who love to gather at his table to contemplate the consommé, the person Dodin is most at ease with is Eugénie (Juliette Binoche), his cook of 20 years. Their cooking methods complement each other: she’s smooth and gentle, he’s forthright and passionate, and, yes, you guessed it, these modes extend to how they approach amour. It is implied that Dodin has been proposing to her for the better part of two decades and although Eugénie sometimes leaves the door open for him at night, she is not so open minded when it comes to marriage. “We’re happy already,” is her logic and it’s true that Binoche has never been more blissful, delivering her entire performance somewhere near cloud nine.
The film opens in the only place that matters, the kitchen, as it takes a long time for Eugénie to prepare a four-course meal for Dodin and his disciples. She is assisted by waitress/sous chef Violette and Violette’s young niece Pauline, owner of a precocious palette. Cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg’s roving camera is captivated by the abundance of ingredients and cooking procedures, ducking and diving and zooming in on Eugénie as she sifts, flames, braises, decants, roasts, whisks, plates, drizzles, fins and much more.
Dodin cannot keep away from this place of sensual creativity. Since he knows best not to meddle with Eugénie during her artistry, he focuses on her young Pauline, popping a mouthful of the sauce into her mouth and asking her what ingredients she detects. He has all the obsessive attention of “Phantom Thread” designer Reynolds Woodcock, yet the nature of his calling has made him generous. It’s hard to be an asshole when you eat as well as he does.
It is something of a running gag that the 2023 Cannes Competition line-up also features Jessica Hausner’s “Club Zero” in which the characters move towards an ideal of consuming nothing. While that film explored the spiritual value that scammers project into denying the body its appetites, this one spins a view of happiness that relies on the profound nourishing power of food. Not just any food. It’s also about personal taste and how if someone knows your stomach, they know your heart. The romance of the food here isn’t even symbolic, because Eugénie and Dodin’s synchronicity on the matter of making beautiful and precise dishes means they are soul mates. Big statements, when they arrive, are served garnished on beautiful crockery.
Tran Anh Hung’s core skill is that of a great saucier, he knows how to add excess ingredients and reduce them to a rich flavor that moves the palate in ways that challenge what seems like a simple dish. The more hypnotic sequences are virtually dialogue-free and function ASMR as spoons clink, brass pots smoke, wine sips, crockery clatter, and all the while Magimel and Binoche exude a meditative engagement with the practical tasks ahead. unwinding.
While part of their shared satisfaction comes from wealth — part of the wonder of being in this world is in admiring the high-end tableware and ingredients for 1885 — this is also a film that unashamedly boasts of the body. Anh Hung sets a humorous pace so that long sequences of intense food preparation are punctuated by explicit sexual behaviors. Eugénie is prone to fainting, so Dodin decides it’s time for him to cook for her. After preparing a thoughtful series of sumptuous but delicate courses, breathing heavily as he shoves sliced truffles inside a chicken, we cut to a shot of Eugénie later, her back bare and butt facing him. This is a world where finding someone who loves you is indistinguishable from finding someone who loves the same things as you. This state of affairs is presented as Nirvana, and the few scenes that take place outside the kitchen involve golden lights on rich green fields.
There is also humor in Magimel who tries to keep his cool when served dishes that don’t meet his standards. Dodin is not a Gordon Ramsay-style pushover character, but his silent horror is palpable when turbot doesn’t taste good, or a cook just can’t rise to the challenge of following a soup recipe. covering two sides of A4. Pauline becomes her protegee and they are charming together, while Eugénie only grows in stature as no one else seems to be able to do what comes so naturally to her, as natural as breathing.
Belonging to a refined tradition of intoxicating food films – “Babette’s Feast”, “Julie & Julia”, “Like water for chocolate” among others – “Le Passion de Dodin Bouffant” pushes the idea of connection through vittles one step further. Certain dishes are so inscribed by their creators that they act as a memory itself, the film says, a sentiment that leaves a beautiful aftertaste.
“The Pot-au-Feu” premiered in competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.