Discovering Trần Anh Hùng’s Zest for Life and Embodying Passion

Trần Anh Hùng’s glorious The Taste of Things starring Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel is a beautiful belle epoque romance. An ode to happiness as an intricate recipe pared down to provide pleasure and nourishment. Mouth-watering and exquisitely sensual – the film is the French entry into The Academy Awards.

Nadine Whitney had the joyous opportunity to speak to the wonderful Vietnamese-French director.

The Taste of Things will be screening at Perth Festival during its first Encore Week on 25 February 2024, ahead its national release later in the year. It is released by IFC Films in The United States and other territories.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NADINE WHITNEY: I feel I should call you Maestro, because your approach to cinema is so embodied it’s more than directing. It’s symphonic.

HUNG: I never direct the actors. I always ask them to show me. And after they have expressed something, if it’s not completely right for the scene I will talk to them. Guiding and asking for less or more and then we do it again. I always want to rely on the creativity and talents of all my collaborators.

NW: You’ve had such excellent collaborators. Tony Leung, Mélanie Laurent, Audrey Tautou, Irene Jacob, Tran Nu Yên-Khê, Bérénice Bejo, Rinko Kikuchi, Josh Hartnett, Elias Koteas, Juliette Binoche, Benoît Magimel… that’s not even taking into consideration the cinematographers, and composers.

You are often looking at the rhythm of life and abundance. Your films have a very tactile and sensual feel. How do you go about creating cinematic sensuality?

HUNG: Cinema for me is the art of incarnation. It means that you put ideas, stories, and information in the bodies of the actors. Sensuality is essential to me in filmmaking. I create a kind of ballet which is a very complex combination of their movements and camera angles and motion. I combine the ingredients to make something musical.

It’s not just the plot or story. The story could be very moving. The themes are important but if the film doesn’t have the rhythm of music and grace notes, then it’s not enough for me.

NW: The Scent of Green Papaya was your award-winning debut feature which made people re-evaluate Vietnamese cinema. Two elements stand out. The creation and serving of food, and the nourishment of listening to music. Mui’s curiosity for the world is guided by a lushness. There is tragedy, melancholy events occur. But the romance exists around the touching and tasting of food and the music that exists as a love language between Mui and the pianist who adores her.

HUNG: Yes, that is exactly it. Within The Taste of Things the same nourishment exists. The sound of the kitchen, the sizzling of the food, the clinking of spoons and whisks become the soundtrack. The romance is inside that space where Eugénie and Dodin create together.

NW: Again, in Eternity (Éternité) there is such haptic pleasure. The kissing of a child, the stroking of hair, an eternal embrace. You guide the actors through gestures which are seeds from one generation to the next.

HUNG: What I have loved from an early age is I like to see hands at work. In The Taste of Things it is about love and food — the two sources of sensuality in our life. Both of those elements are created through touch and hands.

When we see Dodin cooking for Eugénie we see him touching all kinds of meat, fish, oysters, fruit… all kinds of textures. At the end of the day he is in her room and touching her skin. Exploring her body with the same tenderness.

I’m profoundly moved by the way we use our hands. All day through working and then finishing on the soft skin of a lover.

NW: Dodin speaks to Eugénie about their art in terms of genius — a great cook or gourmand is like Mozart. There is connection which is universal in creation. Beautiful music, great art. The joy of summer blooms, of winter berries…. The abundance of life in all its seasons. The comfort of being served and serving each other.

HUNG: Yes. Nadine! What can I add to what you have just said? That is the film.

NW: [laughs] You can tell me what it was like directing Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel.

HUNG: It is really simple working with them because they are great professionals and brilliant actors. I always ask them to show me. Juliette and Benoît would come to me before a scene and ask, “When I say this line, should I deliver it in a certain way?” I would always respond, “Yes! Try it!” And they would deliver the lines and the physical performances, and they would be perfect. They were collaborating in creating their characters. It’s enjoyable to work with great actors. I get the cherry on the cake.

NW: A food metaphor! Perhaps the glacé cherry in the soft pastry? Which brings me to the casting of Bonnie Chagneau Ravoire as Pauline, the young apprentice. Pauline is a very important character in the film.

HUNG: She is the one who will save Dodin from his depression. Eugénie knowing how ill she is manages to give Dodin a kind of daughter. Pauline is a reason for Dodin to reconnect with life. Pauline is a promise kept. Pauline is a beautiful link between Eugénie and Dodin.

How I cast Bonnie was quite funny. I gave her something to eat. I wanted to see if she could chew properly. Really have the food in her mouth and palate. I watched what happened with her eyes so I could watch her analysing what is occurring in her mouth.

With children it can be quite difficult. You need to be very lucky to get the right actor. I think that with Bonnie as Pauline I was fortunate to find her.

NW: In many of your films child actors are essential. The Scent of Green Papaya revolves initially around the child Mui and her interactions with both the children and adults in the house where she works. Eternity shows us Valentine and her children, especially Mathilde. And then Mathilde and Gabrielle as they grow and become parents.

HUNG: I have just been very lucky. It’s difficult to direct children because they have to be so natural. It can be impossible if they just don’t show what I need.

NW: Revisiting your filmography I was struck by how well you focus of your actor’s expressions — in close up and from a distance. How you frame shots to create a delicate intimacy between them, the people they are with, and the environment they are experiencing.

The kitchen in The Taste of Things is not just a kitchen, but a place where you create a vast world that brings the earth together.

HUNG: Thank you! I think I have just been given an incredible compliment [laughs]. I want audiences to experience harmony and beauty in The Taste of Things. I want audiences to see the humanity of the story. How people talk to each other and share knowledge. How they regard each other. Love, companionship, and friendship.

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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