The Taste Of Others (Le goût des autres)
France (2000) Dir. Agnès Jaoui
It could be argued that the French are their own worst enemy when it comes to cinema. They are often lambasted for making films which are all talk but one can’t really complain as a lot of their output is just that. But they seem to be able to get away with it as they have an innate gift for making garrulous which are oddly engaging.
Actress and screenwriter Agnès Jaoui makes her directorial debut in such a film, co-written by one of the leading men Jean-Pierre Bacri, in which the lives of a disparate bunch of people interconnect, creating a series of relationships among people which ordinarily should not work but do have a particularly life changing effect on those involved.
Bacri plays Jean-Jacques Castella, a wealthy industrialist in the middle of negotiating a deal with an Iranian company, necessitating he need for a bodyguard Franck Moreno (Gérard Lanvin) who accompanies Castella everywhere along with his chauffeur Bruno Deschamps (Alain Chabat). Castella also needs to learn English to extend his business dealings and hires an actress Clara Devaux (Anne Alvaro) to teach him but the lessons don’t excite Castella so he fires her after one session.
Later Castella is dragged very much against his will to the theatre by his dog loving interior-designer wife Angélique (Christiane Millet) to see their niece in a play but it is another actress who catches Castella’s eye – Clara. Now he sees Clara in an artistic surrounding Castella’s interest in Clara changes and he resumes the English lessons with her driven but an ulterior motive.
Contrary to what the above synopsis may suggest this is not a film about romance, and just in case the title also seems misleading, it is not about cannibalism either! The tastes in question refer to both artistic and the philosophical and Jaoui explores how they can change to make someone a better person or conversely how shallow someone can be through the stubbornness of a singular taste.
As our test subject Castella is a product of his own making while somewhat directed by his wife’s tastes. As a professional interior designer Angélique believes her artistic vision is absolute as the decor of the Castella household suggests. Unfortunately not everyone else is convinced – a job Angélique is doing for her sister-in-law Béatrice (Brigitte Catillon) is causing more headaches than delight.
Castella’s pursuit of Clara may initially have romantic foundations but it is the artistic aura that Clara exudes which interests him more, while his crass manner and superficial tastes, as Clara sees them, is a turn off. This changes when Castella buys a painting from one of Clara’s friends then hires him to design a new facia for his company, but Clara thinks this is about her.
In a slightly different take on the subject of taste, a subplot involves Franck, Bruno and a bar maid Mani (Agnès Jaoui herself). Not quite the traditional love triangle, it begins with Mani recognising Bruno as a former lover from years before which he doesn’t remember. They rekindle the relationship but Bruno has a girlfriend in America he misses. As Franck is single, he pairs him off with Mani and they hit it off, but Mani’s sideline in hash dealing causes arguments between the two.
Obviously the question of taste in this instance is open to far greater interpretation unless I have missed something. I am assuming it is to do with Mani’s tastes in men in that she is expecting them to either accept or turn a blind eye to her drug dealing. For Franck, an ex-policeman, this isn’t so easy and it becomes an issue between them. Mani isn’t necessarily bad person – she is no pusher and she deals in nothing more than hashish – but it is a side of her that Franck cannot see past.
But this is secondary to the main journey of Castella who gradually evolves from a hardnosed businessman living in the gaudy luxury of his wife’s chosen decor to someone whose eyes have been opened to the arts through his unsatisfied heart. The fact Angélique is more attentive to her dog than anything else almost gives her husband a free pass to explore other avenues of enjoyment open to him.
Quite indicative of French cinema this film is rather subtle in its philosophical musings and in many ways is a bit too clever for its own good. The script is brimming with snappy dialogue and prolix discussions to get the various points across and establish the attitudes of the main players. The problem is that the scenarios they inhabit aren’t always accessible that they leave the meaning under too many layers of obfuscation for significant resonance.
However, the characters are so sharply drawn and superbly essayed by the sterling cast that we are always engaged in what they are doing and where they go next, even we do feel a bit left behind. The central message though, about judging people on their tastes or by our own, rings through loud and clear and both Jaoui and Bacri deserve a pat on the back for not taking this done the predictable romantic route it so easily could have headed.
Despite also helming the film Jauoi gives herself plenty of screen time as Mani, yet doesn’t hog the limelight, allowing equal time to all the principal players. Bacri begins his account as Castella in an almost comical fashion, and the viewer initially wants him to fail in all his endeavours. But once the moustache goes and he becomes artistically enlightened the change is remarkably depicted and Bacri wins us over.
As France’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2000 The Taste Of Others is a highly regarded film for serious cineastes. Unquestionably too highbrow for mainstream audiences it may also be a little oblique in places for other discerning film fans too, which is no crime. Ultimately, it’s just a matter of taste.