Bitter taste of an awards season row

Director of The Taste of Things on Binoche, Magimel and an Oscar polemic

by Richard Mowe

The soft-spoken and mild-mannered Paris-based Vietnamese director Trần Anh Hùng is the last person in the world you would expect to become embroiled in an unseemly awards season row.

Trần Anh Hùng: 'Usually in films fake food is used and it is "relooked" as required but here everything was real'
Trần Anh Hùng: 'Usually in films fake food is used and it is "relooked" as required but here everything was real' Photo: UniFrance
The spat involving some critics and various French industry doyens centred around the choice of Hùng’s The Taste Of Things, a gastronomic and visual feast, as France’s Oscar contender for best foreign film (in the end it didn’t make the final round). The smart money was on Justine Triet’s courtroom conundrum Anatomy Of A Fall which was snubbed by the selection committee - and then promptly garnered five Oscar nominations in other categories including Best Picture. Triet herself reposted on social media a bunch of critical messages about the choice and even suggested it might have been because of her Cannes speech (the film won the Palme d’Or last year while Hùng was named Best Director) in which she criticised Emmanuel Macron’s government.

Four of the selection committee of seven thought that The Taste Of Things was a more appetising choice for the allegedly conservative voting denizens of the Academy although three favoured Triet. The row rumbles on with predictions that the committee will be “reformed” for next time around.

Meanwhile Hùng who made history by being the first Vietnamese director to be Oscar nominated for The Scent Of Green Papaya in 1993, remains stoic in his resolve to remain above the brouhaha. “I don’t understand why there was this polemic around the choice. It was a only decision by a group of people, after all, just like the Palme d’Or is decided by a group after discussions around the room. I have the feeling that the polemic was whipped up by the producers of Justine Triet’s film. They behaved abominably and insulted me and also attacked one of the selection committee, telling her she would never make another film in France. It was horrible.”

In action on a film set: Trần Anh Hùng, director of The Taste Of Things: 'I always tell the actors to savour the lines before saying them because that makes the spectators really want to hear what they are about to say. French cinema can be very talkative but we need time to understand the words and that’s why I like long takes.'
In action on a film set: Trần Anh Hùng, director of The Taste Of Things: 'I always tell the actors to savour the lines before saying them because that makes the spectators really want to hear what they are about to say. French cinema can be very talkative but we need time to understand the words and that’s why I like long takes.' Photo: UniFrance
Hùng, during an encounter in Paris where he has lived since the family moved from Vietnam in 1975, prefers to concentrate on talking up his own film which was shot in a brisk five weeks. “I had had the idea of making a film about food for a long time but no-one seemed interested until I chanced on the book The Life And Passion Of Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet by Marcel Rouff. I preferred telling the story as a prequel to Rouff’s novel. That gave me the freedom to imagine the relationship between Eugénie and Dodin Bouffant. And it was also an opportunity to explore something rare in the cinema: conjugality. And even rarer when it works.”

He had always considered Juliette Binoche for the role of the freedom-loving Eugenie who had worked for the renowned gourmet Dodin for more than two decades during which time gastronomy and mutual admiration turned into a romantic relationship.

“We had known each other for a number of years and had always wanted to work together. As we had the same agent it was easy to keep track of what we were doing. When she got to know about the film I said that obviously it was for her. When I said I was thinking of bringing Benoît she said she didn’t think it was a good idea.”

The two of them had been in a relationship more than 20 years previously and they have daughter Hana (now 24). Hùng continued: “In any case she thought he would refuse because they hadn’t been getting on together for some time and they hadn’t worked together for 20 years. But I thought they were both very professional and both excellent actors and that if they both agreed to the project then they would make sure that nothing bad would happen for the sake of the film. Once he had read the script Benoît said he would be more than happy to do it, but when I told Juliette she thought it could be complicated but agreed to go ahead.

“Finally it was a way of resolving any lurking conflicts in their relationship which was for the good of them and their family. There was one scene after the big banquet when they are walking and talking together in the meadow and they turn towards each other and kiss. That wasn’t written in the script! And there was the final scene where Benoît references the fact that she is his cook and his wife - again the part about his wife wasn’t in the script and changes the sense of the scene. I asked what he thought he was doing - and they both came towards me smiling and said they had got lost in each other’s eyes.”

Trần Anh Hùng proudly holds his best director award from last year’s Cannes Film Festival: 'I have the feeling that the polemic was whipped up by the producers of Justine Triet’s film. They behaved abominably and insulted me …'
Trần Anh Hùng proudly holds his best director award from last year’s Cannes Film Festival: 'I have the feeling that the polemic was whipped up by the producers of Justine Triet’s film. They behaved abominably and insulted me …' Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Hùng has established a trademark style of long takes. He makes no apologies: “I want the spectators to have time to immerse themselves in each scene. It is almost in real time, and that makes the truth of a scene much stronger. It also gives the actors more freedom and allows me to talk them through the musicality and rhythm of the scene. I always tell the actors to savour the lines before saying them because that makes the spectators really want to hear what they are about to say. French cinema can be very talkative but we need time to understand the words and that’s why I like long takes.”

He also takes time between films. He explains: “I usually finish writing a film before I ask a producer to go and find the money for me to make it. And sometimes that can take up to three years to get a project off the ground because my ideas are not always obviously commercial. For The Taste of Things, my seventh feature, it took much longer - almost seven years, partly because of the restrictions of Covid.”

Although Hùng is not vegetarian he thinks that at his age - 62 - it would be “sensible for health reasons to become one.” To ensure the authenticity of the gastronomic delights on view he hired three-star Michelin chef Pierre Gagnaire to act as a consultant. “We discussed the dishes to be used and then we had a couple chefs come in to actually prepare the food. We had carried out a casting session with hand doubles to do the cooking for Juliette and Benoît but they wanted to do it all themselves. Another chef Michel Nave who had worked with Pierre for more than 40 years was also involved on the set.

“As usual on a film set we had our own canteen but we served up many of the dishes that had been prepared for the film. So the cast and crew were very happy and well fed. For the set piece pot-au-feu scene we had 40 different kinds of meat which had to be prepared, cooked and plated. And at the end of the day the cast and crew ate what was left over. Usually in films fake food is used and it is ‘relooked’ as required but here everything was real.”

He remains close to the cinema community in Vietnam, returning every year to give workshops to local filmmakers and those from further afield such as Cambodia and Japan. They go off and live together in a resort location for a couple of weeks. “I talk to them specifically about the language of cinema, what are the specific elements of the art on which they need to concentrate with the aim of creating sensations that only cinema can provide,” said Hùng.

And what are his favourite films around the theme of food? “I loved Tampopo from Japanese director Juzo Itami and also Danish Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast,” concluded Hùng with considerable relish.

The Taste of Things is on release from today, February 14.

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