There’s food porn, which shows like Chef’s Table and Top Chef, not to mention last year’s horror hit movie, The Menu, have turned into widely popular entertainment. And then there’s arthouse food porn, a subgenre that possibly dates back to Marco Ferreri’s 1973 satire La Grande Bouffe, and whose other examples include Babette’s Feast, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Tampopo, Chocolat and Like Water for Chocolate. The latter films tend to be foreign-language, and they’re less about chefs competing for Michelin stars or glowing reviews from Pete Wells than about food as a way of life.
Where else but France, then, as the setting for the latest, and certainly one of the most appetizing, arthouse food porn flicks to come along in a while? Tràn Anh Hùng’s The Pot-au-Feu (La Passion du Dodin-Bouffant) is a movie that captures its mouthwatering dishes like edible tableaux, combining culinary marvels with a moving tale of middle-aged love.
The Bottom Line
Aged like a fine wine.
Starring former real-life couple Benoît Magimel and Juliette Binoche, who ease into their roles in the kitchen like knives through melted farm-fresh butter, the nearly two-and-a-half hour drama is certainly skewed toward older audiences, with a dual focus on ambitious haute cuisine creations and the story of two soulmates maturing together both professionally and privately. Slowly but skillfully paced, it’s filled with highbrow talk of wine pairings, the perfect sauce bourguignonne and the gastronomic legacy of Auguste Escoffier, and yet remains highly watchable — thanks in part to the food itself.
Set almost entirely in the picturesque rustic kitchen of a chateau circa 1885, with a few excursions to the dining room, bedroom and neighboring vegetable patch, The Pot-au-Feu was adapted from Marcel Rouff’s 1924 novel by Anh Hùng, a Vietnamese-born director who’s lived in France for most of his life — his 1993 breakout feature, The Scent of the Green Papaya, was shot on a Paris sound stage — and whose strong sense of craft seems perfectly suited to the material. This is a movie where style counts as much as substance, where style is substance, and while Anh Hùng and cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg indulge us with lots of pretty pictures, they’re doing it for a reason.
Viewers are advised not to walk in on an empty stomach. The opening sequence, which lasts for a full reel and has almost no dialogue, features Eugénie (Binoche), the right-hand woman of top chef Dodin (Magimel), cooking a jaw-dropping multicourse meal that will definitely get your mouth watering. (Though vegetarians be forewarned: This film may not be for you). The food stylings are courtesy of the movie’s “Gastronomic manager” Pierre Gagnaire and “Culinary advisor” Michel Nave, a pair of Michelin three-star chefs who worked together for decades and add plenty of verisimilitude to the dishes.
In the chateau’s elite private dining room, Dodin serves up a coterie of his benefactors (Emmanuel Salinger, Patrick D’Assumçao, Frédéric Fisbach and Jan Hammenecker), all of them male, while Eugénie and her trusty helper, Violette (Galatea Bellugi), remain confined to the kitchen. But Dodin, who loves Eugénie as much as he loves the veal loins and freshly caught fish he transforms into legendary plats, knows that she’s as much behind his fame and fortune as he is. He wants desperately to marry her, but she’s less sure about that, happy to maintain her independence in a relationship of equal standing.
The film’s plot, which is rather minimal, hinges on whether Eugénie will eventually say yes to Dodin, and the suspense gradually builds when we learn that she may also be seriously ill. (A subplot, from which the The Pot-au-Feu takes its English-language title, involves a meal the couple is meant to prepare for the Crown Prince of Estonia.) With all the pleasures he’s tasted in his life, whether at the stove or behind closed doors, the epicurean Dodin may wind up being tragically denied the one thing he truly desires.
Magimel and Binoche were an item for a long time, and they embody their characters so gracefully and effortlessly, it looks as if they’ve always been working in that kitchen together, cooking up a storm. In recent films such as Paris Memories (Revoir Paris) or Pacifiction, Magimel has especially hit new heights as an actor, bringing his accumulated baggage and added girth to the screen like a mid-career French Brando. He appears here like a born bon vivant for whom taste and craft matter more than anything, handling a raw chicken breast like it were a precious jewel. Binoche holds her own next to him, playing a cook who, unlike Dodin, doesn’t need to use complicated terms to describe what she’s doing. She just does it — and does it better than any chef who may one day replace her.
By far the film’s most emotional scene involves Dodin preparing a meal for Eugénie that could very well be her last. He slaves over it like an artist over his greatest canvas — the pictorial references in The Pot-au-Feu seem to be from 18th- and 19th-century France, especially Gustave Courbet and the still-life master Jean Siméon Chardin — and then serves it to her with all the TLC he can muster. “May I watch you eat?” Dodin timidly asks, which may be one of the sexiest, most romantic movie lines, French or otherwise, spoken in a while.
Sure, it’s a bit cheesy, though it’s rather like well-aged Comté or Roquefort, with all the savoir-faire and “terroir” that entails. Anh Hùng’s recent movies, including the family epic, Eternity, and the Josh Hartnett thriller, I Come with the Rain, were both misfires, so it’s nice to see him finding the right outlet for his extreme aestheticism, filming food as few have done before him. “One cannot be a gastronome before age 40,” Dodin explains to his ardent followers, and it’s possible one cannot really enjoy The Pot-au-Feu until that age or later. But some meals are meant to be savored instead of devoured.