‘The Taste of Things’: Juliette Binoche is Mona Lisa in the kitchen

(3 stars)

In “The Taste of Things,” a radiant Juliette Binoche plays Eugénie, a gifted cook who for the past 20 years has been running the kitchen of a 19th-century epicurean named Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel). As the movie opens, Eugénie is harvesting vegetables from Dodin’s garden, smiling beatifically and delicately rearranging wisps of hair as she clips lettuces for braising later; once at work on the day’s meal, she and her aide-de-camp Violette (Galatéa Bellugi) move with wordless, balletic precision amid Dodin’s simmering copper pots and steaming ovens.

No one breaks a sweat in “The Taste of Things” — they glow. No one swears or yells “Corner!” or “Yes, chef!” — they whisper, or simply deliver an approving glance of gustatory satisfaction. This is the anti-“Bear,” a sensuous fantasia of gastronomical pleasure less redolent of the Beef than “Babette’s Feast.”

And, for a year rife with parlous politics and jittery culture, “The Taste of Things” is just what’s needed for some cinematic self-soothing. Adapted from Marcel Rouff’s novel “The Life and Passion of Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet” by Anh Hung Tran, who earned his foodie-film bona fides with 1993’s “The Scent of Green Papaya,” “The Taste of Things” marks a welcome return of the good, old-fashioned art film that doesn’t dwell on the edge but instead rewards our need for escapism, in this case centered on bygone values of discretion, etiquette, noblesse oblige and beauty for its own sake. If such indulgence tips into its own brand of fetishism and complacency, well, that might be the price one pays for watching one of the screen’s most luminous actresses sizzle fish roe in butter, make perfectly shaped quenelles, prepare rooster combs with carrots and crayfish, and poach a turbot in milk, lemon and herbs, only rarely losing that Mona Lisa smile.

The sources of Eugénie’s private joy — and pain — eventually come to light in a film that evolves from what seems to be a conventional upstairs-downstairs drama into something more nuanced and unexpected. Dodin, modeled after the French author and culinary master Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, clearly adores and respects Eugénie, as do the friends who regularly meet in a sort of prototypical slow-food movement; when they moan and slurp while eating millet-gorged ortolans behind linen napkins, the scene resembles high priests worshiping in their own peculiar sanctum sanctorum. Meanwhile, Eugénie has taken an interest in a young protégée, Violette’s niece Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), who is possessed of an unusually discriminating palate.

Binoche is so gifted, she no longer seems to act anymore: She just is, in all her serene confidence and physical charisma, and “The Taste of Things” provides the ideal showcase for those ineffable gifts. The fact that she and Magimel were once a couple in real life gives the story what turns out to be an appropriately mournful frisson, and Tran films them in golden, sun-kissed light, swinging the camera easily between them as they compare recipes and menus. (The film’s sound design is equally luxurious, making sure the audience can hear even the gentle bumping of boiling eggs.)

The class striations of “The Taste of Things” are appealingly ambiguous, as the servants are shown to be connoisseurs every bit as sophisticated as the served. Dodin and Eugénie’s relationship, however, marks a subtle reversion to form, as it becomes clear that her value lies primarily in her ability to translate his genius to the plate. Plus ça change, as Dodin and his circle might say over glasses of wine in his flawlessly appointed dining room. Even when things stubbornly stay the same, though, they can taste awfully good.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some sensuality, partial nudity and smoking. In French with subtitles. 134 minutes.

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