'The Pot-au-Feu' Review: Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel Serve an Exquisitely Prepared French Meal

‘The Pot-au-Feu’ Review: Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel Serve an Exquisitely Prepared French Meal

There’s food porn, which shows how Chef’s table AND Top bossnot to mention last year’s blockbuster horror film The menu, have turned into very popular entertainment. And then there’s art house food porn, a subgenre that perhaps dates back to Marco Ferreri’s 1973 satire Partyand whose other examples include Babette’s banquet, The cook, the thief, his wife and her lover, Tampopo, chocolate AND Like water for chocolate. These latter films tend to be shot in a language other than English, and are less about chefs competing for Michelin stars or glowing Pete Wells reviews than about food as a way of life.

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Where else but France, then, as the setting for the latest, and certainly one of the most mouthwatering, arthouse cooking porn movies to come in a while? by Tran Anh Hung The Pot Au Feu (The Passion of Dodin-Bouffant) is a film that captures its mouthwatering dishes as edible tableaux, combining culinary marvels with a heartwarming middle-aged romance.

The Pot Au Feu

The bottom line

Aged like a fine wine.

Place: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Launch: Juliette Binoche, Benoit Magimel
Director, screenwriter: Overflowing heroes

2 hours and 25 minutes

With real-life ex-couple Benoît Magimel and Juliette Binoche, who fit their kitchen roles like knives in farmhouse-fresh melted butter, the nearly two-and-a-half-hour drama is certainly skewed towards older audiences, with a double focus on ambitious haute cuisine creations and the story of two soulmates who mature together both professionally and privately. Slowly paced but dexterous, it is full of highbrow talk about wine pairings, the perfect Burgundy sauce and Auguste Escoffier’s gastronomic legacy, yet remains highly watchable, thanks in part to the food itself.

Set almost entirely in the quaint country kitchen of a castle circa 1885, with some excursions into the dining room, bedroom and nearby kitchen garden, The Pot Au Feu was adapted from Marcel Rouff’s 1924 novel by Anh Hùng, a Vietnamese-born director who lived in France for most of his life—his 1993 hit film, The scent of green papaya, was shot on a Parisian soundstage and whose strong sense of craftsmanship seems perfectly suited to the material. This is a film where style matters as much as substance, where style AND substance, and while Anh Hùng and cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg delight us with plenty of beautiful images, they do so for a reason.

Spectators are advised not to enter on an empty stomach. The opening sequence, which lasts for a full reel and has almost no dialogue, features Eugénie (Binoche), the right hand of the great chef Dodin (Magimel), cooking a jaw-dropping multi-course meal that will make your mouth water mouth. (Although vegetarians be warned: this film may not be for you.) The food stylings are courtesy of the film’s “gastronomic manager,” Pierre Gagnaire, and “culinary advisor” Michel Nave, a pair of chefs to three Michelin stars who have worked together for decades and add a lot of lifelikeness to the dishes.

In the castle’s elite private dining room, Dodin serves a group of his benefactors (Emmanuel Salinger, Patrick D’Assumçao, Frédéric Fisbach and Jan Hammenecker), all male, while Eugénie and her trusted aide, Violette (Galatea Bellugi) , remain confined to the kitchen. But Dodin, who loves Eugénie as much as he loves veal loins and freshly caught fish, transforms into legendary place, he knows she is behind his fame and fortune as much as he is. He desperately wants to marry her, but she is less sure of it, happy to maintain his independence in an equal relationship.

The film’s plot, which is rather minimal, hinges on whether Eugénie will eventually say yes to Dodin, and the suspense gradually builds as we learn that she too may be seriously ill. (A subplot, hence the The Pot Au Feu takes its English-language title, implies a meal the couple are supposed to prepare for the Crown Prince of Estonia.) With all the pleasures he has tasted in his life, both at the stove and behind closed doors, the epicurean Dodin could end to be tragically denied the one thing he truly desires.

Magimel and Binoche have been an item for a long time, and they embody their characters with such grace and ease, it seems like they’ve always been working together in that kitchen, cooking up a storm. In recent movies like Memories of Paris (See Paris again) OR AppeasementMagimel has reached new heights especially as an actor, carrying his accumulated baggage and adding girth to the screen as a mid-career French Brando. It appears here as a born good lifet for those who taste and dexterity count more than anything else, handling a raw chicken breast as if it were a precious jewel. Binoche gets along alongside him, playing a cook who, unlike Dodin, she doesn’t need to use complicated terms to describe what she’s doing. She just does it—and she does it better than any chef who might one day replace her.

By far the most emotional scene in the film involves Dodin preparing a meal for Eugénie that may very well be her last. He is a slave to it like an artist on a canvas bigger than him: the pictorial references in The Pot Au Feu seems to be 18- and 19th century France, especially Gustave Courbet and still life master Jean Siméon Chardin – and then serves it to them with all the TLC he can muster. “Can I watch you eat?” Dodin coyly asks, which might be one of the sexiest and most romantic movie lines, French or otherwise, uttered in quite some time.

Sure, it’s a bit cheesy, even if it’s a bit like well-aged Comté or Roquefort, with all the savoir faire and “terroir” that that entails. Anh Hùng’s recent films, including the family epic Eternity and Josh Hartnett’s thriller I come with the rain, were misfires, so it’s great to see him find the right outlet for his extreme aestheticism, filming food as few have done before him. “You can’t be a gastronome before you’re 40,” Dodin explains to his ardent followers, and it’s possible you may not really enjoy The Pot au Feu until that age or later. But some meals are meant to be savored instead of eaten.