“Happiness is continuing to desire what we already have,” says Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel), the French gourmet at the center of director Tran Anh Hung’s “The Taste of Things.” It’s 1889, in rural France, and he’s speaking those words to Eugénie (Juliette Binoche), his head chef. The duo share an almost psychic link; he thinks of the recipes, and she brilliantly brings them to life without much explanation. For more than 20 years, they have worked together, crafting incredible feasts that have made them the talk of the town.
Some of the dishes presented here are so complex that they’ll drop your jaw while making your mouth water. The pot-au-feu, for example, is so complicated it takes two days to prepare. Everything is cooked on 19th-century kitchen equipment, in a rustic setting fit for a rustic culinary masterwork. The camera dotes on every scene of preparation with such loving detail that this film deserves entry on the list of the all-time greatest food movies.
The characters on screen get to eat the food, but the viewer reaps the ultimate reward of longing for it. For this is a film about longing as a form of happiness — or rather, a form of continuing to desire what you already have. Dodin and Eugénie are also lovers. They occupy separate rooms in the large villa they share, but he has a standing invitation to visit her any evening. Every so often, he asks her to marry him, which she nonchalantly brushes off. Why mess with a good thing, Eugénie seems to imply.
For Dodin, however, this lack of an official declaration haunts him. They’re not getting any younger, and the ominous fainting spells Eugénie keeps having may be a harbinger of tragedy. At the same time, we get the feeling that Dodin’s suffering is tinged with a sweet sorrow that figuratively lights the fire under the cuisine he creates with Eugénie.
Perhaps this is why he decides to turn the tables and cook for his beloved. For once, the artist will inspire the muse.
There’s a lovely subplot featuring Eugénie’s would-be protégé, Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), a teen whose skills are almost as preternaturally good as her mentor’s. Pauline’s parents believe that an apprenticeship under Dodin would be safer than the societal fate that awaits her otherwise. She and Dodin’s longtime assistant, Violette (Galatéa Bellugi), round out the kitchen staff.
Magimel is excellent, but Binoche has never been better or more radiant onscreen. The two actors were once partners (they share a daughter), and one gets the sense that they’re channeling what they know about each other into Dodin and Eugénie. Though they are assisted by Jonathan Ricquebourg’s lush cinematography and a romantic score, everything you need to know is conveyed in actors’ eyes.
Tran, who won best director at last year’s Cannes for this movie, also directed 1993′s Camera d’Or winner at Cannes, “The Scent of Green Papaya.” The first Vietnamese film to be nominated for the best international film Oscar is also about food and love, rendered in a similarly delicate way that entices the senses. “The Taste of Things” is even more worthy, though it failed to be nominated in that category this year.
One of 2023′s best films, “The Taste of Things” is achingly romantic and devastatingly sad. You’ll spend the first two-thirds of this movie salivating, and the last third of it sobbing. The final scene is like dunking your face in a bowl of chopped onions. You won’t regret a single moment. And, of course, you’ll leave hungry.
THE TASTE OF THINGS
Written and directed by Tran Anh Hung. Based on the novel “La vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, gourmet” by Marcel Rouff. Starring Juliette Binoche, Benoît Magimel, Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire, Galatéa Bellugi. At Coolidge Corner, AMC Boston Common, Alamo Drafthouse Seaport, suburbs. 135 minutes. In French; subtitled. PG-13 (brief nudity).
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.