There is something to be said for a simple dish made with the best ingredients by a trusted hand. Just as a perfect omelet made by a lover is more satisfying than an eight-hour feast laid on by a Prince, so it follows that a film like “The Pot-au-Feu” works, not in spite of, but because it focuses on executing its basic premise with enrapturing attention to detail. This is a story about love and food, which it presents as the same thing.
Sight unseen, it was always a mouth-watering prospect: two delicious French actors – Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel – feeding each other in Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of a 2014 graphic novel reputed to be food porn. The promise of this set-up is delivered with gusto 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 syrup pears.
The Prince of Eurasia, who courts his taste buds, refers to Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel) as “the Napoleon of culinary arts.” Although he has a suite of loyal gourmets who love to gather at his table to contemplate the consommé, the person with whom Dodin is most comfortable is Eugénie (Juliette Binoche), his cook of 20 years. Their methods of cooking are complementary: she is fluid and gentle, he is frank and passionate and, yes, you guessed it, these modes extend to the way they approach l’amour. It is implied that Dodin has been proposing to her for the better part of two decades and although Eugénie sometimes leaves her door unlocked for him at night, she is not as open when it comes to marriage. “We’re already happy,” is her logic and it’s true that Binoche has never been more beatific, delivering her entire performance from somewhere close to cloud nine.
The film opens in the only place that matters, the kitchen, as Eugénie takes a luxurious amount of time to prepare a four-course meal for Dodin and his disciples. She is assisted by maid/sous chef Violette and Violette’s young niece, Pauline — the owner of a precocious palette. DP Jonathan Ricquebourg’s roving camera is fascinated by the abundance of ingredients and cooking procedures, ducking and diving and zooming in on Eugénie sieving, flaming, braising, decanting, roasting, whisking, plating, drizzling, clarifying, and much more.
Dodin cannot keep away from this locus of sensual creativity. As he knows better than to meddle with Eugénie during her artistry, he focuses on young Pauline, spooning a mouthful of sauce into her mouth and asking her what ingredients she detects. He has all the obsessive focus of fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock from “Phantom Thread” yet the nature of his vocation has made him generous. It’s hard to be an asshole when you eat as well as he does.
It’s something of a gag that the 2023 Cannes Competition line-up also contains Jessica Hausner’s “Club Zero” in which characters move toward an ideal of consuming nothing at all. Whereas that film explored the spiritual value that grifters project onto denying the body its appetites, this one spins a vision of happiness that is predicated on the deep nurturing power of food. Not just any food. This is also about personal taste and how if someone knows your stomach, they know your heart. The romanticism of food here is not even symbolic, for Eugénie and Dodin’s synchronicity on the matter of making beautiful and precise dishes means that they are soulmates. Important declarations, when they come, are served with garnish on gorgeous crockery.
Tran Anh Hung’s core skill is that of a top saucier, he knows how to add a glut of ingredients and reduce them to a rich flavor that moves the palate in ways that defy what seems like a simple dish. The most hypnotic sequences are virtually dialogue-free and work like ASMR as spoons tinkle, brass pots steam, wine glugs, crockery clanks and all the while Magimel and Binoche exude a meditative commitment to the practical tasks that they are performing.
Although some of their shared contentment stems from wealth — part of the wonder of being in this world is in admiring the top-of-the-range-for-1885 kitchenware and ingredients — this is also a film that vaunts the body without shame. Anh Hung establishes a humorous rhythm so that long sequences of intense food preparation are punctuated with explicit sexual behavior. Eugénie is subject to fainting spells, so Dodin decides it’s time for him to cook for her. After preparing a thoughtful series of lavish yet delicate courses, breathing heavily as he pushes sliced truffles inside a chicken, we cut to a shot of Eugénie later, her naked back and butt facing him. This is a world in which 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 to take place outside of the kitchen involve golden light on rich green fields.
There is humor, also, in Magimel trying to stay calm when he is served dishes that do not meet his standards. Dodin is not a character who wishes to throw his weight around, Gordon Ramsay-style, but his quiet horror is palpable when the turbot does not taste right, or a cook cannot rise to the challenge of following a soup recipe that covers two sides of A4. Pauline becomes his protege and they are charming together, all the while Eugénie only grows in stature as no one else can seem to do what comes so naturally to her — as naturally as breathing.
Belonging to a fine tradition of intoxicating food films — “Babette’s Feast”, “Julie & Julia”, “Like Water For Chocolate” amongst others — “Le Passion de Dodin Bouffant” pushes the notion of bonding through vittles a step further. Certain dishes are so inscribed by their creators that they act as memory itself, says the film, a sentiment that leaves a beautiful after-taste.
“The Pot-au-Feu” premiered In Competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.