The Taste of Things is a Phenomenological Feast

‘Wine is the intellectual side of a meal. Meat and vegetables are the material side.’
—Dodin Bouffant, The Taste of Things

 

If one is desiring to feast, The Taste of Things is a film worth savoring for both its intellectual and material sides. In fact, much like the wine and food, talking about them separately is missing the point, for they are meant to be experienced together, creating something new. The Taste of Things is the most sensual movie I’ve encountered in quite some time. It’s a movie that makes you smell, and thus gives a flavor of ephemerality even as it plumbs lasting depths. Like a great meal or a great love, it is memorable and gone too soon: The Taste of Things is an exercise in phenomenological filmmaking.

As a philosophical framework grounded in and by experience, phenomenology is closely attuned to the senses. In Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes that, contrary to a philosophy rooted in consciousness, ‘the miracle of the real world, on the other hand, is that in it significance and existence are one, and that we see the latter lodge itself in no uncertain fashion in the former… the significance encircles and permeates matter’.1 Matter thus becomes (or rather always is) a bearer of significance. Merleau-Ponty’s central focus of the work is the means by which we encounter matter: our senses, or perception. It is through the senses that we constitute our world. It’s easy to understand the emphasis that Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger before him placed on sight and touch—with Heidegger stating that ‘the function of seeing has a privilege’2 among the senses—but taste and smell deserve reflection, as well. While the former are perhaps the most consistent means of perception and relation to our world, the latter often create far sharper experiences, engendering moments of profound encounter which become etched in memory.

The Taste of Things creates something delicious and echoing in its specificity. As chef Dodin Bouffant says, it’s like crafting a symphony, blending different aspects such that each is notable, even as each contributes to a single purpose. The first ingredient, then, of Tran Anh Hung’s film is the relationship between Dodin (Benoit Magimel) and Eugénie (Juliette Binoche). We meet them in France toward the end of the 19th century, though none of the weight of the fin de siècle seems to burden them. Dodin is one of France’s greatest culinary minds, but Eugénie is every part his equal. Eugénie is his cook, which makes her both his employee and integral partner. But she’s far more than that. She’s also his lover, his friend, his companion.

The connection between art and phenomenology is clear in every frame of Hung’s film—more so, it’s inescapable in the full experience of the film. But there’s a theological force to everything, as well, which tightens these connections even further. Toward the end of the film, Dodin tells Eugénie about a quote from Augustine where he claimed that ‘happiness is continuing to desire what you already have.’ It’s fitting that Augustine’s words would bring the movie to a close, for his theology looms large in phenomenology to the point that it’s hard to conceive the latter without the generativity of his ideas: his expression of desire, his extravagant interiority, the way that interiority is shattered by an external Presence, his theorizing on the distension of time. His spirit whispers still in the foundational works of Heidegger, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty.

Perception

‘It is not consciousness which touches or feels, but the hand…’3

While small in focus, Hung’s film is transcendent in reach. The Taste of Things is, well, about taste, about sense in all of its scope. Utensils clang against copper, oils and fats crackle, the aroma of onion and herb waft through the projection. Dodin and Eugénie’s home is cathedralled with the songs of birds and insects. This is a film of delicate choreography and small gestures, replete with attentive and incandescent physical performances. Late in the film, Dodin softly caresses a glass of Burgundy, but he is unaware of the action. We sense a deep emotion being expressed even before he puts those feelings into words. The moment is an exemplar of the way the film handles the power of its feeling, with every small thing playing part of a meaningful whole. It’s a Proustian moment of recollection that conveys a tidal wave of meaning, even as the origin of the memory goes undescribed.

It is Dodin’s sadness that moves him to stroke the wine glass. But if taste gives expression to his grief, it also breaks him out of his solipsism. A friend arrives with the remains of a lunch, eager for Dodin’s thoughts. As he somewhat reluctantly obliges, Dodin comments on the choices of the cook, at first offering a mere acknowledgement of skill. As he keeps tasting, however, he recognizes that this meal is a truly creative act. In You Are What You Love, which builds on a phenomenological framework, James K.A. Smith connects our inner longing to such acts of creativity: ‘We are made to be makers, but as makers we remain lovers. So if you are what you love, then you make what you love.’4 Dodin’s passion is also his craft, and as a maker he recognizes the power in the creations of others.

Smith further ties this desire to our senses, writing that ‘the longing that Augustine describes is less like curiosity and more like hunger.’5 Longing is not the fruit of a reflective consciousness or the cogito—it is discovered as already present. Needful. Its presence (itself an absence) may be subsequently reflected on, but the ordering is inescapable. We do not think ourselves hungry; our hunger distracts our thoughts. This is true whether such a longing is physical, emotional, or spiritual. We fall into—or are thrown into—that longing that Augustine expresses. At the same time, that longing throws us into the world of objects and other beings—into encounter, just as Dodin’s awakening late in the film. ‘To this extent, every perception is a communication or a communion.’6

Time 

‘Time exists for me only because I am situated in it.’7

Dodin and Eugénie’s lives are ordered around food. It flows through their thoughts as they read recipes, wonder about where the next innovations of cuisine will originate, and orchestrate menus. Food also orients their time: the smell of an omelet chimes morning, and the day is structured by the timing of dishes. Food feeds their passion as they dance around each other, delighting in sharing meals, in sharing thoughts, in sharing time.

Passion, taste, thought, time, experience. These are the core of Dodin and Eugénie’s lives and their love, flowing into how the pair continue to structure their lives. Heidegger encapsulates the ways that our use of time, the practices we use to structure it, reveals our inner selves: ‘Temporality reveals itself as the meaning of authentic care.’8 When provided a grandiloquent meal by traveling royalty, Dodin dismisses it as ‘a parade without order’, contrasting the way he conceives of a menu. When he plans a meal, there is a melody to it, moments of whispered notes followed by triumphant crescendos. The order of each distinct flavor is a practiced, intentional quality. James K.A. Smith would call it liturgical: ‘Liturgies work affectively and aesthetically…the way to the heart is through the body.’9

In Cartesian Meditations, Husserl expresses that ‘daily practical living is naïve. It is immersion in the already-given world.’10 That daily practical living is exactly the world in which we encounter Dodin and Eugénie. The Taste of Things makes a grand display of the mundane interweaving of desire, experience, practice, reflection, and time. We enter the film decades into their relationship, such that it’s impossible to know which of these constituted the origin of the others. Their shared culinary passion orients their use of time, their habit of cooking nourishes their affection for each other, the long held practice of making omelets and ornate meals alike sharpen their reflection on flavors and creativity, and sharing such delights with each other and friends reinvigorates their passion. Within all of these dynamics is experience: the smell of herbs, the warmth of friendship, the sharp taste of longing, the sense of time not slipping so much as being well spent.

Being

‘Your abode is your act itself. Your act is you… Man is but a network of relationships, and these alone matter to him.’11

Merleau-Ponty ends his études with this quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It’s a fitting conclusion, encircling the interwoven nature of being. Action is an expression of self. An embrace of our embodied home. Yet it is also a hand thrust out in anticipation of encounter, an other.

The Taste of Things incarnates this truth, encompassing the scope of what makes us human. History is a topic of consideration, both for its gifts and its limitations, the need for new ideas. But ideas are not enough in themselves: this is a film about feelings against untethered thoughts. Love means nothing abstracted, nor does taste. Friendship is a husk if one doesn’t take joy in richly pouring out the gifts of food and drink; companionship is a thing to be savored. Appreciation and desire demand bodily involvement, and these are all difficult things for a film to exhort let alone embody. The Taste of Things exemplifies the significance and sensual wonder of these phenomena.

‘Every perception is a communication or a communion.’12 Dodin’s life is marked by culinary acts of speaking. Every meal is either shared or joyfully given, whether to friends or Eugénie. His passion molds creative acts that are meant to be experienced by others; it is a form of communion with them. A washing of the feet, a laying on of hands, a giving of sight, of perception. Merleau-Ponty grasped the centrality of the other in our lives: ‘The very first of all cultural objects, and the one by which all the rest exist, is the body of the other person.’13 Dodin demonstrates ways to care for the body of the other, through the simple—and evocative and sensual and transformative—means of nourishment. He is no Christ figure, but he may be a preeminent example of the Christian life.

The Taste of Things concludes with a quote from Augustine. And, for that matter, so does Cartesian Meditations. It seems apt, then, to conclude with a passage from his Confessions which nearly concludes Being and Time. ‘Hence it seemed to me that time is nothing else than an extendedness; but of what sort of thing it is an extendedness I do not know; and it would be surprising if it were not an extendedness of the soul itself.’14 The extendedness of time enables us to be transformed by encounter with the world and to form relationships to objects and other beings. If Augustine is correct, then time’s distention is also a matter of spiritual significance—or to put it more precisely, matter is of spiritual significance, and spiritual significance matters. The soul and the senses are not separate, but they are entwined in communion. The taste of things invigorates us, body and soul, slaking our hunger and drawing us into the generative space of encounter and relationship.

Author

  • Micah Rickard is a freelance movie critic in Seattle, WA whose writing focuses on the ways that art and entertainment orient our being-in-the-world. His academic interests focus on phenomenology, hermeneutics, and how these studies inform our experience and interpretation of film. His reviews can be found at micahrickard.com, and his work has been published at Bright Wall / Dark Room, Christ and Pop Culture, Ekstasis and Think Christian.

1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (Routledge, 2002), 377–378.
2. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (SUNY Press, 2010), 165.
3. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 368.
4. James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love (Brazos Press, 2016), 175.
5. Smith, You Are What You Love, 8.
6. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 373.
7. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 492.
8. Heidegger, Being and Time, 311.
9. Smith, You Are What You Love, 46.
10. Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations (Martinus Nijhoff, 1970), 152.
11. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Pilote de Guerre, 171 and 176, as quoted in Phenomenology of Perception, 530.
12. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 373.
13. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 406.
14. Augustine, Confessions XI.26, as quoted in Being and Time (SUNY Press, 2010), 406.
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