Thursday, June 29, 2017

Sublime taste

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2001)

The terrific new French film The Taste of Others isn’t actually that new – it opened in New York almost a year ago, and was a nominee for best foreign language film at the last Oscars. It lost to Crouching Tiger. Hidden Dragon, a film of much greater physical sweep, and of course much greater popularity. Crouching Tiger was probably the better winner; a victory for The Taste of Others would have had too many people shaking their heads, and you have to admire a foreign film that hits so many multiplexes. But on merit, you could certainly argue it the other way. Either way, it’s a joy to have the film here at last.

On connait les chanson

The film is directed by Agnes Jaoui, who also co-wrote and co-stars in it with her husband and frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Bacri. I know them best from their work on Alain Resnais’ On connait les chanson, a poised tale of up-and-down relationships. Resnais’ film, made with his usual elegance, used the Dennis Potter trick of having the characters occasionally burst into song, but that aspect of it never seemed like much more than a Potter homage. The most striking element to me was the suggestion of a more supernatural element to the various maladies. In a party sequence, for instance, we get shots of a fluid plasma-like object floating between scenes, perhaps connoting the life force, or destiny, or just the tangible presence that we might wish for our problems to possess.

Another reference point. I’ve written several times before about my admiration for Andre Techine, the director of Thieves and Alice and Martin. I think Techine may be the most underrated director in the world right now. But I do understand how the mistake gets made. The films are lush and filled with large incidents, with narrative gaps that seem to signal a fondness for melodrama. To really get Techine’s work, you have to have a certain predisposition for the off-kilter. Not just in the liberal sense that allows you to blur the distinctions between say whore and professors (although that helps too), but to an extent that you could imagine discovering at almost any moment that the universe is wired differently than everyone’s believed so far. To put this in less rarified terms, I love David Letterman and Larry David’s Curb your Enthusiasm almost as much as I love Techine’s films, and that all seems pretty consistent to me.

The grass is greener

When you navigate your way through Techine’s ambitious structures, you ultimately get to some scintillating human payoffs. The Taste of Others has payoffs as satisfying, but in a way even more impressive for being mined from more straightforward territory. Bacri plays a bored businessman, going everywhere with a bodyguard in tow while he works on a high-stakes deal. He has barely an artistic bone in his body, until his wife drags him along to a play at which he’s strangely mesmerized by one of the actresses. He knows her already – she’s his English teacher, and (herself middle-aged and disillusioned) has made no previous impression on him. But now he starts to pursue her, and even pushes himself into her artistic circle, where he’s regarded as little more than a figure of fun who pays for the drinks.

Meanwhile his bodyguard romances a waitress (played by Jaoui) at a local bar, and of course there’s more going on too. The Taste of Others is clearly in the same register as Resnais’ film – it’s about more or less ordinary people and their shifting connections. But it has no singing and no explicit signs of the metaphysical, and the cinematography and editing could hardly be smoother or less obtrusive.

I think the title holds the key to the film. Note its deliberate ambiguity – it might be implying either a subject’s taste for new experience (the grass is always greener…) or evoking the range of desires and inclinations of those around us (in which case the subject might become the object). The film beautifully sets out both meanings. The businessman’s wife is a would-be interior decorator with a fatal flaw – she works only to her own aesthetic sense, not to that of the customer. “Can’t you see?” she says in desperation. “Some things go together, others don’t.” The fun of the movie is in keeping us guessing about what falls into what category. Its great insight is in its full and mature depiction of the fluidity of the categories themselves.

Beautiful moment

So a relationship might be on the verge of marriage and commitment, but then naturally fall away (given their own long and presumably happy relationship, Jaoui and Bacri are hardly gloomy about the prospects of marriage, but it’s fair to conclude they’re aware of how things might have gone differently). You might take up something new just to win an advantage, or else out of a genuine spontaneous passion -and you might not know yourself which one it is. And the movie doesn’t criticize its characters for their shaky sense of themselves. When the bodyguard chides the waitress for selling drugs on the side, because it’s against the law, it’s clear that this is too simplistic a rationale for her, but the movie has a way of presenting such disagreements that preserves the legitimacy of both viewpoints.

The Taste of Others has a beautiful structure – not in the sense of the “three acts” that still holds sway in the mainstream, but in the sense that everything is counterbalanced and proportioned. It’s often quite funny, sometimes in a fairly conventional way. It has ironies both somewhat predictable and not. And at the end it has one of the most beautiful moments of the year, where a woman (having finally realized where her own taste lies) looks around for a man, doesn’t see him, then suddenly breaks into a smile of pure happiness. The next shot confirms what the smile has so eloquently told us – he’s there after all, and it’s clear from his face that his mood is aligned with hers. You realize how little she’s smiled in the film prior to that, how sealed off she’s been, how close she came to missing her destination. Any realistic depiction of human possibilities has to admit the existence of the happy ending, while also giving us a realistic assessment of the odds. Jaoui’s ending represents the triumph of the long shot, but on this occasion it would probably have seemed tasteless to have it any other way.

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