In the rose-gray light of dawn, Juliette Binoche strides through a verdant kitchen garden, wearing a straw hat as wide and undulating as an ocean wave. She plucks a majestically large, gnarled celeriac from the earth and sniffs it deeply and fondly, as if inhaling mythical ambrosia, and takes it back to the house. This is how Tràn Anh Hùng’s “The Pot au Feu” opens, which is to say on a note of sensory reverence and a hint of kitsch, in knowing thrall to one of the less pretty vegetables in nature’s cornucopia. There are people — this critic included — who will watch this scene and immediately sense with a hungry tingle that the film to come has been made expressly for their palate, and there is everyone else. “The Pot au Feu” is not for everyone else, and that’s just fine.
Thirty years after his first feature “The Scent of Green Papaya” — a film that, among other riches, lived up to the fragrant promise of its title in its lush scenes of culinary preparation — French-Vietnamese director Hùng has returned to the cinematic kitchen for a slab of outright gastronomic spectacle on the level of “Babette’s Feast” or “Like Water for Chocolate,” only more so. Food is the subject, the objective and the driving motor of this scantly plotted but utterly captivating love story set almost entirely within the confines of a French gourmet château in the late 19th century; to clarify the term “love story,” its two human principals are in love with each other, but perhaps in love with food a bit more. At the very least, they struggle to separate the two.
Conflict is minimal, surprises nil. Instead, “The Pot au Feu” — titled for the classically rustic French dish of boiled meat and vegetables, which carries eventual narrative significance in this parade of fancier fare — holds its audience entirely on the pleasures of beauty, vicarious indulgence and, eventually, the human care inherent in haute cuisine, all to obviously mouthwatering but less expectedly moving effect. With the right handling, this could be a crossover arthouse hit, courting the more highbrow among the same demographic that showed up for another Binoche starrer, “Chocolat,” two decades ago; in another universe, it would sink Ozempic the way Clark Gable killed men’s undershirt sales in “It Happened One Night.”
The pace is luxuriantly slow but methodical, akin to slow-cooking a boeuf bourguignon, and quickened by the gradual rewards of process: the calming satisfaction that comes from watching supremely skilled people at work. Said people in this case are Dodin (Benoît Magimel), a celebrated gourmet living on an idyllic estate in France’s Loire Valley, and Eugenie (Binoche), his cook and collaborator of over 20 years. He devises the dishes, while she executes them to perfection, with the assistance of mousy kitchen hand Violette (Galatea Bellugi).
Theirs is a deeply intuitive partnership, demonstrated upfront in a jaw-dropping introductory cooking sequence that runs nearly 40 minutes. As Dodin and Eugenie prepare a sumptuous multi-course dinner for friends in their large, dreamily low-lit country kitchen, they dart swiftly between bubbling, bassinet-sized copper pans that Nancy Meyers herself would envy. The menu includes a quiveringly rare loin of veal, crayfish, vast ribbons of turbot drowning in white wine, a giant vol-au-vent glistening with egg wash, and a flame-licked baked Alaska — all shot by DP Jonathan Ricquebourg with a tactile, near-fleshly intimacy that resists magazine-spread sheen, and in turn says something of the people making it. Dodin and Eugenie speak sparsely, and only of practical matters, throughout this marathon, marked by a tacit air of comfort and companionship. The food is what we gawk at; the mutual understanding behind it is what turns us on.
Fittingly enough, this is a measured, unhurried romance. Dodin and Eugenie maintain separate bedrooms, though she occasionally opens her door to him for sensual nourishment of another kind. He wants to marry; she sees no need. But they are aging, and Eugenie’s health is failing: Her sporadic fainting spells provide the film’s lone point of tension, though we know what’s coming next as surely as we know the order of a four-course menu. Only once the determinedly industrious Eugenie acquiesces to some bedrest, and to let Dodin, for once, cook for her — over another sustained cooking-and-serving sequence as sexily concentrated as the opening was cheerfully busy — does their relationship take a new, achingly gentle turn.
Adapting a 1924 novel by French epicure Marcel Rouff, Hùng’s screenplay is pared to the bone in terms of character and backstory: We learn little about the principals’ lives outside the kitchen, nor about the economic and practical specifics that enable them to live so deliciously. Dodin and Eugenie’s soul connection is so particular and so obsessive that the film can afford to zero in on it rather than zoom out. Binoche and Magimel — themselves former lovers whose romantic history lends the film a further layer of unspoken intimacy — underplay exquisitely, essaying the pair’s bond with an expressive range of complicit glances, half-smiles and questioning moues as they work, intermittently visible through curling veils of steam.
This is filmmaking at once profuse and serenely contained, and Hùng is far more at home in this mode than in his previous French-language effort, 2016’s sweeping, century-spanning melodrama “Eternity.” He lavishes “The Pot au Feu” with richness of atmosphere and image, but the film never feels overstuffed or overseasoned. Ricquebourg’s lighting is precisely gilded, conjuring magic-hour iridescence even in dim kitchen corners, while Toma Baquéni’s production design is attentive to the texture of every wobbly floor flagstone or grooved timber work surface. Yet contrary to every food-porn trick in the book, Hùng resists overlaying the action with music — all the better to focus on every pop and chop and sizzle of the cooking process, every soft grunt of bliss in the eating, every shared sigh or sotto voce instruction between its two entwined chefs. A true sensualist trades in abundance, but knows the value of occasional restraint.