For something so integral to our lives, food rarely gets its due on the big screen. For every Babette’s Feast, Big Night or Tampopo, there’s a thousand other films where the dining room is a place of conflict rather than nourishment, and a full plate is at least as likely to end up lobbed against a wall as lingered over.
Enter Tran Anh Hung, then, with a gastronomic feast so rich and romantic, it’ll leave you woozy.
The Vietnamese filmmaker takes us back to 1885, the heyday of classic French cooking, and a sun-drenched Anjou château that’s home to Dodin Bouffant (The Piano Teacher’s Benoît Magimel) and his cook, Eugénie (Juliette Binoche). He’s a renowned chef searching for new inspiration – ‘the Napoleon of the culinary arts’, though it’s not a comparison he takes kindly to – but she’s his muse and the object of all his desires. Her cooking can reduce garrulous men to hushed silence and her salty good sense and directness serves as a pin in his balloon-sized ego.
Magimel and Binoche have played lovers once before, in 1999’s period potboiler Children of the Century – but they portray a more affectingly lived-in kind of chemistry here. The former is a delight as the pompous but devoted Dodin. And La Binoche is luminous even as Eugénie is ailing from an undiagnosed condition. Deep emotions bring a palpable charge to this poised, patient film.
The Pot-au-Feu is thirsty as well as hungry. Anyone who thinks eroticism in cinema is dead needs to witness Dodin sitting to watch the woman he loves eating a dinner he’s prepared for her. Look out, too, for one of the most outlandishly camp transitions in cinema (suffice to say, it involves pears and buttocks).
It’s a gastronomic feast so rich and romantic, it’ll leave you woozy
And for anyone who ever fretted that Hung’s The Scent of Green Papaya didn’t feature enough actual papaya, the Vietnamese filmmaker is definitely not shrimping on the portions here. The Pot-au-Feu opens with the preparation of a lunch – rich sauces are reduced, langoustines are prepped, veal loins sizzle on the stove – that’s conducted in near wordless harmony by Dodin, Eugénie and their two young servant girls (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire and Galatéa Bellugi). Like a particularly elegant episode of MasterChef, it runs for 15 mouthwatering minutes. Food is a gift of love here – and romance courses through this delightful film.
The Pot-au-Feu premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.