NEW YORK: Controversy has simmered around France’s entry for the Oscars, “The Taste of Things” – a love letter to the country’s culinary traditions – but filmmaker Tran Anh Hung and star chef Pierre Gagnaire say the art of cooking is worth celebrating.
The movie, which hopes to win an Oscar nod in January, is a sumptuous 19th century romance about a cook (Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche), the gourmand she works for (Benoit Magimel) – and the exquisite dishes they create.
“I’ve been looking for a subject about cooking for 20 years, because I wanted to make a film about an art form. And I chose culinary art – not painting, not music,” Tran told AFP at a New York screening hosted by the French government.
The director, who came to France as a child in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, first earned international attention with “Cyclo” and “The Scent of Green Papaya” – both set in the Asian country.
With “The Taste of Things,” the 60-year-old filmmaker said he hopes to “pay tribute to my country, which welcomed me when I was 12 years old,” explaining how he was “amazed” by French culture upon his arrival.
For the 73-year-old Gagnaire, who currently has restaurants in Paris, London, Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Dubai, working on the film both as a consultant and in a small on-screen role was a way of “defending our know-how” in the kitchen.
“In the kitchens, in the back, we build things and defend our culture. In the kitchens, we often talk – there are French words,” Gagnaire told AFP.
“And by doing what we do, we sell not just taste – we sell crockery, we sell wine, we sell everything that revolves around the arts of the table.”
Art consumed by ‘business’
Tran and Gagnaire were in New York to promote “The Taste of Things” as it makes its way through the Oscars selection process, hopefully resulting in a nomination, to be announced on Jan 23.
The film, which debuted in Cannes in May and opened this month to tepid reviews in France, was selected to vie for the best international feature film prize over Justine Triet’s acclaimed courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Fall,” sparking criticism.
That film, about a woman accused of murdering her husband, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and managed to attract more than one million spectators in cinemas in France.
Some felt that the choice of “Taste” as France’s Oscars entry was a way of punishing Triet for some outspoken statements she made against the government of President Emmanuel Macron when she won the Palme.
Gagnaire hit back at critics of “Taste” – France’s hip culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles called its long, sweeping shots of bubbling casseroles “food porn crossed with rancid conservatism” – by saying slowing down is no crime.
“That’s what makes it beautiful,” he said. “These days, we’re all about ‘quick and done’ whereas cooking takes time. It takes time. (…) This cinema pays homage to slowness.”
Tran, who won best director honours in Cannes, says cinema as an art form is “becoming increasingly rare” in favour of more commercially viable fare.
“I think that today’s art world is too much eaten up by, how shall I put it, business,” he said.
“The Taste of Things” is adapted from a Swiss novel written in 1920. It will open in the United States in February 2024, just before the Oscars in March.