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Food for Thought- Cuisine as Art

Impressions of dining and the new movie "The Taste of Things" - Brian Keeler

Above- Vermeer's painting, "The Milkmaid" of 1660 is evoked in the genre scenes of the movie "The Taste of Things."

The beauty, delicacy and exquisite wonder of the sense of taste, smell and visual sumptuousness is presented to us abundantly in the new film, "The Taste of Things" now showing at Cinemapolis, the art theatre here in Ithaca. I am allowing myself the opportunity to play film reviewer and reflect on my impressions of this movie.

First off, from a visual aspect, the film is a feast for the eyes. The beauty of the ambiance, color, light and the composed nature of the scenes is really incredible. We are treated to a visual immersion into interiors of the early nineteenth century in France that evoke the warm hues of Rembrandt's wonderful interiors. Of course, Vermeer and Pieter De Hooch are honored here too- as the quotidian activities of the kitchen bring to mind the simple beauty of these Dutch Artist's paitnings, particularly Vermeer's painting of a woman pouring milk, titled, "The Milkmaid" an oil of 1660. We could say the cinematographer's work is positively painterly, as we appreciate the palette and chosen hues of golden light. In other words, the color usage is a purposeful artistic decision, a manipulation, a crafted and deliberate employment of hues to express a specific quality-warmth. And we can palpably experience a summer day in France in the early 1900's.

For me this movie brings to mind paintings of the same era, and there are many paintings which depict agrarian scenes in France during the 19th century- Bougerau comes to mind as do Van Gogh, Jules Breton, and Daubigny. One of my favorites, however, is the large canvas in The Musee d'Orsay (shown below) in Paris by Leon Augustin Lhermitte, who made the portrayal of peasant life his career. The painting shown below of "La Paye des moissonneurs" or "Paying the Harvesters" portrays the dignity of farmworkers in a beautfully understated palette.

Above- a painting by Leon Lhermitte of French peasants in the 19th century that could easily have inspired the filmmaker for The Tast of Things.

Above- a canvas by the French artist Jules-Adolphe Breton portrays the beauty of light as peasants enjoy a rest. His work has an affinity with the visual aspects of the film being discussed. There are great examples of his work nearby in the Arnot Museum in Elmira and at the Johnson Museum in Ithaca, NY.

Above- a painting by the author, titled "Umbrian Light- Olive Harvest" explores the motif of agrarian activities similar to the artists and filmaker of this essay. This one set in Umbria near Todi. The painting is in a private collection in Dundee, NY.

But could we call the film over-the-top indulgence in the culinary, or is the sensorial given way too much credence? Yes, this is an easy read but not without merit. We could even perhaps say the slice of life presented here is decadent, recalling a practice of Roman antiquity that took place in the vomitorium, which, (pardon the digression) allowed for residents of the Eternal City to keep on indulging in the sense of taste- regardless of its nutritive needs. The latin word originates from the name for the point of egress in stadiums like the colisieum, that allowed for the crowds to spew forth. This regard of ancient Rome is said to be a misconception of the word, and suggest much more glutony than was the case. Yet, the point still holds, and this type of focus on eating to the disregard of simple needs is especially repugnant when we think of the extremes of our war-torn world where so many are deprived of even the basics for sustenance.

Still, we can appreciate the art of food preparation and viticultutre taken to an extreme. We are presented with this opportunity in this movie. I will have to admit that the film may be lacking in profluence, which is the literary term for the quality which moves us ahead in a plot. But this slow movement is typical of some French Films and aesthetics in general. I recall my first French film seen at the University of Arizona in Tuscson back in 1979. It was titled Lulu and stared Gerard Depradeau. It seemed like nothing was happening through the entire movie. But then again, it takes the commonplace and allows for prolonged study or representation. And this is part of my approach to painting- finding the beauty in the humble. Another French film of a similalyr slow narrative, Las Belle Noiseuse was a movie about a painter and his model. It included prolonged scenes of that artist arranging his charcoal that were even too slow paced for me- one who is interested in the tools of the trade.

The movie brings to mind many years of traveling and dinning in Italy too- as there are definite parallels. I love the way Italians take cooking so seriously. They love to explain about the process of their meals; the ingredients, how it is prepared, where it comes from, the familial history etc. We could only hope for an assemblance of this in most American restaurants. It was interesting to note that one scene in the movie had one of the characters doubting the capacity of his stomach to endure an eight hour dinning experience. This has been experienced more than once in Italy. And again, we appreciate the idea of taking dining to an almost marathon-like experience. They like to bring course after course of incredible dishes out over the entire evening. But who has such a capacious alimentary ability? Our host in Umbria, Max, would say, a meal we were about to experience at a restaurant in the nearby town of Spello would be like food orgasm.

Back to the movie. There is also the aspect of the preponderance of a meat-centered diet. This is the way it is and probably even more so in the 1820's. Yet the delicacy and craft of food preparation is appreciated here- even for us vegetarians. But the mention of foie-gras at one point is beyond the pale. But in those days, it was probably not quite as much a corporate-level of cruelty to animals as it is today.

There is a scene near the end of the film where Benoit, playing the part of Dodin Bouffant, a real gourmet of the nineteenth century in France, is presented with a dish brought from a prospective replacement for the deceased chef, Eugenie (played by Juliette Binoche.) He can tell exactly how each item was prepared, where it came from, how long it was cooked and the uniqueness of the combinations. We marvel at his discernment and sophistication. Yet who amongst us mere mortals has this refined level of appreciation?

Wine and burgundy are noted too. They are at one point enjoying a wine that was somehow rescued after being at the bottom of the sea for 60 years after a ship bound for the Americas was wrecked. All these interchanges add to the particular preciousness of each moment.

The sensual overtones are noted too. A succulent pear is zoomed in upon and then we see in the next scene in a delicate fading light the beauty of the female nude in the bed- as visual echo of the shape of the pear. Art history buffs may recall the iconic photo by Man Ray of a violin imposed the nude back of a woman. There is a bathing scene too, that seemed to be a quote form a work by Degas, as one of his pastels shows a similar angle of a nude seen from above, while she is kneeling in a tub. The soft light throughout accentuates the sublte frisson of a soft summer warmth throughout the movie. Indeed the low-light and natural light of the film compliments the narrative beautifully.

There is one scene that encapsulates the ethos of the film though. And that is when a group of a half dozen men are dining around a table with this beautiful light streaming in through a single window. They are presented with a dish and they all proceed to cover their heads with a white cloth while they dip their noses toward their dishes. The cloth acts as a wine glass with a narrow mouth, which is to focus the aroma. They moan in unison as they savor the communal olfactory bliss.

The sound of the movie is also worth noting. For there are scenes that really capture the beauty of a farm in the heat of summer in France- with no dialogue. We hear a cawing peacock during several scenes. The scrreenless windows and open doors let in the beautiful light of what could be Provence. But we also hear the rustling of trees, lowing cows and chirping of other birds. The cracking of knives going through vegetables, the clattering of utensils all seems to add to the beauty. The breathing of the cooks is even heard as they struggle with cutlery. And the outdoor scenes, conversing next to cows, ambling through flowers, appreciating the seasons and rustling of wind- these all bring the Barbizon school of painters to mind. We think of the beauty of the canvases of Corot or Millet of peasants harvesting - done in the same era that the film is set. And the impressionsts light of the next generation in France is brought to mind as well.

Speaking of sound, what is it about dining in restaurants that one has to also go out for a course in heavy metal at heavy volumes? When did this become the norm? Even high quality restaurants here in Ithaca seem to think that we need to hear loud music. It would be ok if it were classical music at a low-level. My ideal dining experience is a quiet restaurant without huge tables of cell-phone obsessed diners talking at decibels too much for a jackhammer operator to hear above.

From a cinematographic aspect, there are several vignettes where the characters are walking through the halls of this farmhouse or in the gardens with the camera right in front of them for extended periods at close angles. How do they do it? There is no sense of a hand held camera moving by foot. Amazing!

A nod to Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher is fitting to conclude. I would say that what I am advocating is the simple life, live simply so others can simply live- as the adage goes. However, the hedonism and pleasure of food is well-taken and appreciated here. Epicurus taught that pleasure or tranquility could be attained by limiting one's desires and banishing the fear of the Gods.

All in all, the film was an act of homage and appreciation into one aspect of being human.

Above- "Umbrian Field Workers" a 36" x 40" oil on linen by the author, exploring the theme of agrarian life. This scene inspired by the artist's plein air work at this site near Spoleto. This motif agrarian workers also portrayed by other artists mentioned in this essay and in the film, "The Taste of Things."


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