A couple of warnings: don’t watch this film a) on an empty stomach; or b) if you are a vegan. The story begins in the kitchen. The first 20 minutes or so consist entirely of cooking: lobster, duck, chicken, quail, ribs, onions, carrots, parsnips, tomatoes, mushrooms, spices and countless other ingredients are combined to mouth-watering results. This is French cuisine: it’s intended to taste and to look good. Unless you don’t eat animals. If that’s the case, you might not appreciate the very graphic and constant gutting of various creatures.
The story is pretty straight-forward. Somewhere in rural France in the late 19th century, Eugenie (Binoche) is a devoted cook who has worked for kind, middle-aged gourmet Dodin Bouffant (Benoit Magimel) for more than 20 years. Their relationship is almost entirely based on food. So much so that the middle-aged man finds intense pleasure in observing the lady insert food in her mouth, chew and swallow it.Think Nagisa Oshima’s Realm of the Senses (1976), replace sex with food and you are halfway there (luckily for Binoche, there are no eggs lying around). The French actress still looks scrumptious at the age of 59 (her sinuous figure is distinctly prominent when she’s naked in bed). Eugenie and Dodin just can’t stop cooking and eating. Their romantic, their professional and even their social lives revolve around the dinner table.
Eugenie and Dodin are supported by the loyal servant (Galatea Bellugi) and her teenage niece Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), who possesses the impressive ability to distinguish up about 20 different ingredients with a single mouthful. Her future looks promising, the biggest problem being that Dodin thinks nobody should be a gourmet chef before the age of 40. Such sophisticated occupation is reserved for those “in the autumn” of their lives. He seems to think that people taste and operate better with age,. This might explain why it took him so long to take his relationship with Eugenie to the next level. She insists however that she is still in the “summer” of her life, and that she intends to remain in the season forever (her words prove rather prophetic in the final third of the film). Other pearls of wisdom include: “marriage is like a meal, it starts with the dessert” or “wine is the intellectual element of a meal, while meat and vegetables are the material”. Easily digestible aphorisms, if also a little bland and cheesy.
While not particularly hard to stomach, with a gently marinated, softly seared storyline and tasteful acting, The Pot-au-Feu also lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. It could do with a little more bite. A little more crunch. Or maybe a little more spice. Also, it’s a little overcooked at 135 minutes. The final scene has a very distinctive flavour, with notes of cardamom, juniper and black pepper, and a very subtle sweet aftertaste. Not an indulgent meal, however a mostly satisfactory one.
Dodin Bouffant’s character is based on the eponymous protagonist of Marcel Rouff’s novel The Passionate Epicure. Sixty-year-old, Vietnamese-born director Tran Anh Hung has lived in France since the age of 12, and this is his second Franco-Belgian romance based on a novel, after Eternity (2016).
The Pot-au-Feu premiered in the Official Competition of the Cannes Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. Also showing in San Sebastian, the BFI London Film Festival and Tallinn Black Nights,