Last time Benoît Magimel appeared in the Cannes competition, a vision in Albert Serra’s Pacifiction, he played a foreign diplomat who stalked an island of French Polynesia like a trashy king. If Serra’s otherworldy film told a cautionary tale about feckless Euro-decadence, Magimel’s latest is more like a revelry. Adapted from Marcel Rouf’s 1924 novel The Passionate Epicure, The Pot-au-Feu is a film about the pleasures of preparing food and consuming it, the idea of cooking as an act of giving and even of love––if a leitmotif exists in this film’s script, it is the sigh of ecstasy.
The Pot-au-Feu is directed by Tran Anh Hung, a Vietnamese filmmaker who broke out at Cannes in 1993 with The Smell of Green Papaya. For Pot-au-Feu, Magimel stars as Dodin Bouffant, a restaurant owner and famed gourmet––or, as one character christens him, “the Napoleon of the culinary arts”––living on a rural estate in late-19th-century France. Magimel shares this film right down the middle with Juliette Binoche who, amongst her many career-best turns, plays Eugenie, Bouffant’s chef of 20 years and, as it turns out, the love of his life––as if, in this film, those things could ever be mutually exclusive.
Premiering in competition at Cannes, it was a first for Tran, who took home a deserved award for Best Director from Ruben Östlund’s jury––a nice irony, given the film that won the Swede his second Palme d’Or last year. Indeed, compared to an arch satire like Triangle of Sadness (a story that pivoted on some bad shellfish), The Pot-au-Feu has a refreshing sense of joy and sincerity: too cinematic to be labeled food porn, and with none of the easy cynicism of recent gastro-satires, Tran’s film easily transcends both categorizations. Take the roguish scene in which Bouffant treats his merry cohort (played by Emmanuel Salinger, Patrick d’Assumçao, Fréderic Fisbach, and Jan Hammenecke) to a serving of ortolan, a dish that has provided much ammunition for recent TV shows (Succession, Billions, Hannibal, etc.) looking to chastise the 1%. Tran takes the taboo and flips it with a kind of charm that was more than enough to draw a wave of giddy laughter at the press screening I attended. Looking back, it was probably the funniest film in competition this year.
In another moment that got a laugh, Eugenie recalls an anecdote to Bouffant’s entourage about how he came home from one particularly lavish feast so uninspired that she felt she should prepare a pallet-cleanser, before listing an absurdly lengthy meal of her own. That encounter acts as a starting point of the film’s ostensible narrative: unimpressed by a Prince’s showy opulence, Bouffant decides to invite him for a meal. The centerpiece is to be the eponymous dish––a humble classic of French cuisine––but then his love falls ill. (It’s no spoiler––as early as the first act is Eugenie shown taking a quick break and clutching her stomach.) After her first collapse, the Prince recedes from the plot and is replaced by Pauline (Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire), a talented young apprentice whom Bouffant takes under his wing. Together they cook up a proposal.
Basting away over a suitably rich 145 minutes, Tran’s film plays like an impassioned ode. In its various cooking sequences––the opening ballet of mixing, slicing, pouring, whisking, etc. plays a delicious 30 minutes––cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg (who shot Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV) captures the unspoken rhythms of Eugenie’s kitchen with a curious energy befitting the subject matter. The kitchen’s rhythms and passions are mirrored in its characters’ shared romantic life: watching Dodin and Eugenie cook, you sense something telepathic, even conspiratorial. That their sexual relationship consists of a series of secretive late-night hook-ups (all of which are, significantly, on her terms) is a perfect reflection of the tradeoff of patience for pleasure––another kind of delayed gratification—that constitutes their work.
All of this is captured fluently by the actors as at ease in their roles as they are in each other’s company. Magimel has rarely been better, but there’s something wonderfully impenetrable about Binoche’s performance here––kind and generous, yet forever adrift in contemplation, she grants Eugenie the aura of a great artist. It’s an infectious bit of cinema: a film that leaves a hundred tastes in the mouth and a nice flush in the bloodstream.
The Pot-au-Feu premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and will be released by Sapan Studios and IFC Films.