The dream of ’90s film is alive and thriving in Trần Anh Hùng’s “The Pot au Feu,” a movie that left intoxicated attendees at the Cannes Film Festival premiere both starving — given the film’s ambrosial depictions of just about every dish in the bible of haute gastronomy — and more fully sated on that precise “peak Miramax” style than from any film in at least the past decade.
If anything, this wonderful confection is an even more refined spin on those amber-hued period dramas that defined the upscale strata during the late-Clinton years. For bereft of narrative tension, and with a preference for steaks over stakes, “The Pot au Feu” might very well be the most handsomely shot and soothingly felt serving of art house food porn ever brought to screen. It’s about to become your mother’s favorite film, and it’s an absolute delight.
Perhaps “food porn” isn’t fair, as there’s nothing profane or the least bit vulgar about this ostensible romance between a rural aristocrat and his live-in cook living in the late 19th century. The meals that Dodin Bouffant (Benoit Magimel) and Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) create together are nothing if not worshipful of every ingredient they use. This is food rapture, brought to screen with any and all distractions trimmed and scrapped.
Though Dodin calls himself the Napoleon of the culinary arts, he is no armchair gourmand. In the film’s opening moments, he joins Eugénie in a wood fire, exposed-beam kitchen — a vision so aspirational to a certain kind of Le Creuset fetishist as to make the Nancy Meyers aesthetic look like an Ikea catalogue — then straps on an apron and gets down to business preparing a seven-course meal in pretty much real-time.
Granted, movie magic may step in for some of the longer reductions, but all the same, the first 40 minutes of this 2.5-hour feast never leave that cooking range, offering a symphony of heavy-bottomed pans clanging on tiled-counters, as the dynamic duo chop, sear, strain, filet, reduce, mount, raft, baste, clarify and then plate an extravagant meal that leaves Babette’s feast looking a Lenten snack.
(Do the assembled guests eventually drape their heads in cloth to sup on ortolan? I mean, do you even have to ask?)
None of this happens at the expense of narrative, mind you, because the kitchen as opposed to the dining table is the narrative space where a landed gent and the woman in his employ can exist as equals even for all the love (and occasional nights) they share. We are in France of the 1880s, remember.
For all that, “The Pot au Feu” is no tale of forbidden or even unconsummated love, nor is it remotely melodramatic. Once Eugénie takes a short leave from the hob to clutch her stomach in quiet pain early in Act 1, we already know her affliction and can probably guess her fate. What can she do but wring the meaning from her every waking moment, just as she wrings flavor from her kitchen scrap? And how else than by doing what she loves?
Here is an oddly balanced love triangle between a man and woman and the food they make to communicate their feelings to one another. Never has the sight of a man truffling then trussing a chicken, wrapping it in cheesecloth then poaching it in court bouillon conveyed such aching emotion. Furthermore, the two actors’ off-screen history lends their performances a degree of comfort and chemistry you all too rarely see.
And never has such cheesy dialogue left this reviewer so giddy. Sitting under a tree one late evening, Dodin looks up at the sky and opines, “The discovery of a new dish brings more joy to humanity than the discovery of a new star.” He stops to think for a moment, then adds: “One cannot be a real gourmet before the age of 40.”
Don’t forget — cheese is a delicacy in France.