Trần Anh Hùng’s The Pot-au-Feu charts a romance between gourmet chef Dodin Bouffant (Benoit Magimel) and his cook, Eugenie (Juliette Binoche), in late 18th-century France. Their relationship as creative collaborators and lovers sidesteps the typical pitfalls of complicated entanglement or fraught power dynamics, Hùng instead taking a more interesting view on the relationship in refusing to establish a firm dichotomy between admiration for a person and admiration for their work. Rather than focusing on any conversational back-and-forth or intense physical desire, The Pot-au-Feu is interested in understanding this romance as it flows through their work. As such, a large part of the film revels in the striking, meticulous demonstration of preparing delicious food. The billowing steam of stews, the crunch of fresh vegetables, the succulence of various meats, and the delicacy of assorted desserts — these are all depicted with a romantic, sometimes even carnal eye; you might even say that to watch this film on an empty stomach would invite genuine agony.
The Pot-au-Feu, however, is not a celebration of pure decadence. An internationally recognized and respected chef, Dodin’s feasts and methodology have managed to attract even European royalty to his fine-dining parties. While these gorgeously photographed feasts are prepared for their guests, Dodin dutifully serves as consummate host, passionately explaining his creative process and culinary ideals. Magimel is exceptional in the role. At one point, Dodin is described by someone as the “Napoleon of fine dining,” and bristles, and Magimel fully conveys why this character might be so dubbed: Dodin describes his convictions for the art of the feast with a confident intensity, criticizing others’ inability to understand haute cuisine as a cultural and artistic expression rather than just an opportunity to gorge in style. But it’s also clear why Dodin would object to this description; in his romance with Boniche’s Eugenie, we see the chef capture beauty and express deep affection for his lover through his cooking, as well as his struggle to prepare the meals precisely for her. Cooking is not dogma for Dodin — it’s communication. He has no desire to be dictatorial, but to more precisely articulate himself. Food is a conversation, a relationship being developed between cook and consumer, one that should not be overpowered by either parties’ indulgences.
As an actor, Magimel communicates impeccably through gestures — a curl at the corner of his mouth, can speak volumes to how he’s assessing his peers, indicating whether his high standards have been met. There’s an intensity to his stare, but also curiosity, a sense of expectation, and of course a strong feeling of desire when directed at his co-star. It’s a performance of earnest wanting, replete with all the intimidation and flattering that might invoke. Binoche responds with a physical performance honed through process — much of the labor in the kitchen, preparing recipes and organizing complex feasts, lies with her, and we see her work and sweat it out with the wait staff, making sure that everything is on time and in order. At the same time, there’s an undercurrent of warm humanism to the performance, detectable when you see her on her breaks sharing generous portions of the prepared feasts with her staff.
The differences between these two characters’ and their approach to their work are what distinguish this creative partnership and make their romance so intense; they compliment each other in form and function, the practical one and the idealist. They two struggle to define where their love for each other and their love of their profession begins and ends — but the question is essentially meaningless. Eugenie is her cooking, her process, her care; Dodin is his taste and his intense curiosity. If cooking in this film really is treated as a form of personal communication, then these two speak the same seductive language to each other throughout the film — dialoguing through carefully presented, beautifully realized, and laboriously prepared meals.
Later, tragic events intrude upon this seduction — telegraphed in an early fainting — but these moments prove less intoxicating and more familiar in their presentation; interruptions in an admiringly modest film. Thankfully, Hùng mostly sticks to images of cooking and eating, the respective work and pleasure of these activities making up a majority of The Pot-au-Feu’s runtime; tragedy is but a course rather than the whole meal. It’s an approach that Dodin himself echoes when talking to his guests, clarifying the ideals of his creative expression: most importantly, that meals should always have lightness, should never be too decadent or heavy or overbearing. A feast properly prepared should be balanced, should make you contemplate its components and how they function as a collective whole. Hùng’s film respects this clarity that defines Dodin’s cuisine, and so largely allows its characters to luxuriate in its intimate and charming and sexy spaces. Dodin and Eugenie’s differences are explicated purely in how they work in the kitchen and in how they enjoy the fruits (and vegetables and meats and broths) of each other’s labor. There’s no need for validation for their relationship beyond that, the work. There’s no need to drown the film in maudlin emotion or ponderous conversation. In observing how beautifully a peeled pear is presented, how thoroughly a duck is stuffed, and how early one must rise to produce a proper omelet, we are able to better understand the particulars and depth of how two lovers at the heart of The Pot-au-Feu feel about each other.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.