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Film Reviews: The Taste of Things & The Peasants

Arts Review2024-2-16By: Marc Glassman


Remembering European Rural Life

The Taste of Things & The Peasants

By Marc Glassman


The Taste of Things

Trần Anh Hùng, director and script

Pierre Gagnaire, cooking consultant

Starring: Juliette Binoche (Eugénie), Benoît Magimel (Dodin Bouffant), Emmanuel Salinger (Rabaz), Patrick d’Assumçao (Grimaud), Jan Hammenecker (Magot), Frederic Fisbach (Beaubois), Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire (Pauline), Galatea Bellugi (Violette)


The French entry in this year’s Oscars, which shockingly didn’t make the final nominee list, The Taste of Things has garnered multiple awards since its debut at Cannes, where the Vietnamese-French filmmaker Trần Anh Hùng won the best director prize. It has been touted as the finest food film ever made, with many viewers—including this critic—being mesmerized by the dazzling presentation of cooking throughout the work. Kudos must go to celebrity cuisine consultant Pierre Gagnaire as well as Trần Anh Hùng for creating a series of brilliantly choreographed examples of French cooking in this stylish film. 

The Taste of Things begins with a tour-de-force demonstration of how to prepare, cook and present an elaborate multi-course meal to a group of avid gourmands. Acclaimed chef Dodin Bouffant, played with elaborate wit and discretion by Benoît Magimel and his brilliant accomplice—and perhaps the finer cook—Eugénie, interpreted with lucidity and humour by the glorious Juliette Binoche, are shown working effortlessly in tandem, making a complex and clearly enjoyable meal. It’s mid-19th century France, when the bourgeoisie had established a more democratic society, allowing the indulgence of grand friendships to become part of a normal culture. The wonderful dinner created by Dodin and Eugénie is shown to be richly appreciated by the chef’s friends Dr. Rabaz and other distinguished members of the local rural gentry, Grimaud, Magot and Beaubois. 

It’s after the guests leave, and well over half-an-hour of the film has taken place, that Trần Anh Hùng reveals the human story behind the bravura cooking. While sitting in the garden, relaxing and finally alone, Dodin asks Eugénie if she will leave her bedroom door open to him that night. She teases him but admits that it’s likely the door won’t be locked but when Dodin, suddenly, asks if she’ll marry him, the answer is a gentle “no.” This is the heart of the matter: Eugénie would rather be a chef than a wife and is privately pleased when Dodin’s friends call her an artist. There aren’t many things a woman can do in 19th century France, but Binoche’s Eugénie has acquired a measure of independence and doesn’t want to surrender it. 

Hùng has made a film of intimate pleasures, acutely observed. We watch in fascination as Dodin and Eugénie create dishes, cutting meat, shucking oysters, adding scalding hot water to whole fish and diced vegetables to start a precise recipe. Binoche and Magimel are accomplished performers, which allows Hùng the opportunity to have them share complicit looks as they evaluate their friends and employees including a possible protegee, Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), a serious young lady with extraordinary taste buds, who could be trained into becoming a chef. 

Eventually, a plot does emerge, and it is very much the kind of narrative that would have suited opera lovers back in the 19th century. It turns out that Eugénie is dying of an unknown disease, which gives her the compassion to agree to marry Dodin. In the nearby woods, on a glorious afternoon, Dodin speaks eloquently of his “autumnal romance” with Eugénie to a group of 50 people or so, seated in a vast outdoor luncheon table. It’s a beautiful scene, one worthy of an Oscar—if only it had been nominated. 

The Taste of Things is an extraordinary film. It has so many glorious elements: the food, the romance, the friendships, and the mentorship of a new chef. Trần Anh Hùng has taken a risk casting former real-life partners Binoche and Magimel as lovers but his assumption that their personal chemistry and professional approach would make their on-screen romance work has proven to be correct. He’s made a wonderful film, which any “foodie” or Francophile will automatically embrace. And so should everyone else—except, apparently, the Academy. 


The Peasants

DK Welchman & Hugh Welchman, directors & writers based on the novel by Wladyslaw Reymont

Starring: Kamila Urzedowska (Jagna), Robert Gulaczyk (Antek Boryna), Miroslaw Baka (Maciej Boryna), Sonia Mietielica (Hanka Borynowa), Ewa Kasprzyk (Dominikowa)


The Polish submission for Best Foreign Language film at this year’s Academy Awards, which didn’t make the final list, The Peasants is a superbly accomplished adaptation of the Nobel Prize winning novel by Wladyslaw Reymont. Filmmaking and life partners the Polish DK (Dorota Kobiela) Welchman and British Hugh Welchman have followed up their immensely successful animation feature about Van Gogh, Loving Vincent, with this gorgeously rendered recreation of rural life in Poland at the turn of the 20th century. What makes The Peasants extraordinary is more its technique than its plot: the duo has spent five years making a work that is a true visual treat. 

After writing a scenario that faithfully captured the essence of Reymont’s novel, the Welchman duo shot the film in a style that evoked the historic country life in Poland. Then they employed over 100 artists to recreate each shot in oil paintings. Many look like works one would see in galleries: they are extraordinary interpretations of art by acclaimed Polish realist painters Chelmonski, Ruszczyc and Wyczolkowski. It’s estimated that the animation team spent over 200,000 hours creating the film, shot by shot. The effect, as one might expect, is almost outrageously beautiful—you feel like pausing the film every few minutes just to relish the images being screened.

Wladyslaw Reymont wrote in the naturalist style that was all the rage in the latter half of the 19th century. His work is part of a tough, almost documentary style that can be fruitfully compared to the novels of Thomas Hardy, Emile Zola, Theodore Dreiser, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Like them, his work is pessimistic. It dramatizes the weaknesses of human beings, who are adversely affected by their environment and society. The vast majority never break free and are doomed to have tragic lives, which may be blamed on their heredity (though some authors and thinkers disagree with that opinion). At any rate, most revel in nature but are ultimately undone by it since their instincts run counter to the repressive constraints of their culture.

It’s helpful to know about Reymont and his style before watching The Peasants because the story is downbeat and sometimes difficult to enjoy—except visually. The film, like the novel, is divided into the four seasons, which depicts the events of the village of Lipce over a typical year. Much of the story revolves around the most beautiful young woman in the region, Jagna, who is being pursued by the married but handsome Antek Boryna and the carpenter Mateusz. The man who wins Jagna’s hand in marriage is Antek’s father Maciej, recently widowed and the richest farmer in the land. Though she marries his father, Jagna can’t resist Antek and the two continue their affair until it’s discovered, and the son is expelled from the family.

This has all taken place during the Fall and Winter, two of the four chapters in the film (and the novel). The Winter section reaches its apex when Maciej Boryna leads the peasants in a revolt against the landlords and Russian military who beat them into submission. Antek fights to save his father from the Russians, which brings him emotionally back into the family, but he, like many others, ends up in prison.

In the Spring section, Antek’s neglected wife Hanka acquires money and most of the land after nursing the dying Maciej. She pays for Antek’s freedom, who upon his return, rapes Jagna, who has been abandoned by the family.  By the Summer, everyone hates Jagna for her beauty and artistry—she makes lovely paper cut-outs—and drive her viciously out of the village. Refusing to give up, Jagna departs the village forever, with rain cleaning off her wounds. 

The plot of The Peasants is compelling but there’s no doubt that it isn’t happy viewing. One can see why the Welchman duo would want to make a film based on a Nobel Prize winning novel but it is a harsh and unforgiving work. In Poland, where Reymont is a legendary figure, the film drew over a million attendees. But the rest of the world, including Canada, may be more resistant to its old-fashioned and tragic story. Making the film far more interesting is its extraordinary style. This is one gorgeous film! Should one see it? Yes, for the animation, but I can understand if some people may find the tale simply too problematic to support. A Nobel Prize winner? Yes, but it was 100 years ago.



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