Little Gold Men

With The Taste of Things, Juliette Binoche Confronted Her Past—And Paved a New Path Forward

The Oscar winner opens up about the profound insights gained from making her luminous new film, which France is campaigning for this year’s international-film Oscar.
With ‘The Taste of Things Juliette Binoche Confronted Her Past and Future
Nina Westervelt/Getty Images

Movie after movie, Juliette Binoche embodies the qualities of a restless, fearless actor. She works a ton, typically taking on several psychologically intense and emotionally draining roles a year. She collaborates regularly with exacting global auteurs like Claire Denis and Hirokazu Kore-eda and Olivier Assayas. She digs deep into her characters and is unafraid of strongly advocating for them. (She told me last year of one conversation with her showrunners on the Max series The Staircase, “I actually asked them to rewrite the scene.”) All of which makes the Oscar winner’s entrance in The Taste of Things, France’s official submission for the international-film Oscar, that much more surprising. Director Trần Anh Hùng films his star, transported to the French countryside circa 1885, with a loving ease, following her in one long, sumptuous take as she prepares an elaborate meal. Binoche appears effervescent, warm, unhurried; the scene’s poetry rests in her projection of calm.

This, it turns out, was as eye-opening for Binoche as a student of her recent work might expect. She portrays a talented chef named Eugénie, whose profound love for her employer, the noted restaurateur Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel), reaches turning points both romantic and tragic over the course of the film. In that story, Binoche was given a rigorous cinematic lesson in slowing down. Out of her rich collaboration with Hùng, a Vietnamese-born filmmaker who grew up in France, she reflected on her life and career; in filming a grand love story with Magimel, Binoche’s former partner—and the father of her daughter—she found a way to say what’d long been unsaid between them. This impact on Binoche shows in her luminous performance—and as she says on this week’s Little Gold Men (read or listen below), it’s one she plans on carrying forward.

Vanity Fair: As you got to learning about your role in this film and the relationship at the story’s center, what appealed to you and what were you most excited to play within that?

Juliette Binoche: The relationship to food, of course, it reminds you of the relationship with your mother. The first breastfeeding moment, and the need of being fed stays forever. You never get rid of it. Also, the need of love and the need of being taken care of. Then there's a moment when it reverses, because when you have kids, you have to take care of them, you have to cook. There's something essential about this film in a way because it's about preparing for others. I like the analogy between the relationship between Dodin, who's being played by Benoît Magimel, and myself, because it reminds me of the relationship between a director and an actor. The guy is the conceptor, he has the idea of the recipe, and my character is a cook who's going to make it real, who's going to incarnate this idea. And it's very much what actors do. We read lines on the paper, and then we have to make them real and alive and truthful and vibrant.

The film begins on this really stunning, single-take sequence of you cooking an elaborate meal. Let’s take that as an example of the practical nature of the project. How did you prepare for and navigate that scene?

Hùng, the director, was always asking me to keep smiling, stay happy. Knowing that I had to play this character, I knew it was a little more complex than that, because she's hiding a lot of things. We had to make sure that, in the pace of it, we would respect everybody's pace. There’s a sort of a ballet thing that you have to do in sequences….That's why we rehearsed quite a lot. We had a day of rehearsals before we did that shot.

Given the gastronomic specificity of the film, did you have a level of confidence in being able to act out making some of these dishes? What's your level of cooking versus what the film required?

I don't think I had any difficulty in learning the recipes, but there are some gestures—the cooking gestures you do in cutting or doing the sabayon special sauce, you have to move a certain way, but very, very quickly. It is like playing music, really. That I couldn't do very well. It would've meant being an apprentice for about three years, which I didn't have the time to do. [Laughs] And anyway, Hung was not interested in seeing that, the obvious gesture of the active cutting very fast, like people do in kitchens. It wasn't the purpose.

I'm curious how you found the perspective of the film. I spoke with your director, Hùng, a little bit about it, and he described it as his kind of love letter to France. He's somebody who came to France at a young age and who has a real affection for it culturally. There is a kind of dreamy aspect to the film in that regard.

It's true. He really embraced the French culture through cooking, but also loving this area, the seasons. We really have four seasons—really cold, it can be very hot—with all this softness that you can feel also in that area of the west part of France. He embraced the literature of France, a softness or ordered way of writing or expressing oneself. So I see that. I'm very touched by it, because he came to France when he was only eight years old, and it was not easy for him to adapt into another language, another way of doing things. He was probably bullied at school and he even still embraced the beauty of French culture.

In terms of working with Benoît, who you have your own history with, there is such a level of intimacy between your characters.

That's the gift of this film in a way, is that Benoît and I knew each other. There were a lot of things [unsaid] from the past, because we have a daughter together. We separated, and it was not always easy. Being able to actually go into another level with him and express each other's love, because they have this relationship—this love relationship that seems to be so smooth, even though she's resisting him in a way because she doesn't want to get married—was very moving to be able to reconcile in that way. And also to give this film to my daughter. To our daughter. It was a big gift that life gave us.

Especially what we were saying earlier about the tone of the film is there's something very moving about that, I think.

Yeah, it comes across. I think it was beyond ourselves in a way. I was very moved to be in front of him and having to express what Hùng wrote. Because it wasn't my words, it was the director's words—and in that way, I didn't feel guilty. It's so hard to express what you're feeling when there's been oceans of unsaid over time, so it's finally good to find ways to say simple things, because at the end of the day, what remains is love. There's nothing else. At the end, if it's not love, then you failed. The real failure is not the separation. The failure is the feelings of hate or the feelings of anger or the feelings that keep you a prisoner. When you're able to transform it into something free, which is love to me, it's wonderful.

You mentioned the experience of interpreting Hùng’s script. How did you find him as a director?

I love the way he is concentrated on set. He's picky about things, definitely, like his wife [Tran Nu Yen Khe], who was the artistic director and custom designer. They work together very closely. In a poetic way, he's a thinking director: He's thinking editing, he's thinking storytelling, how to use the camera. So it's not a habit of how well he's doing things; it's, “Where do I put my camera to tell the story the best I can?” And there's an emotion that comes with that…. When I say picky: every single glass or silverware or flower, there was a discussion of almost every single detail between his wife and him. I had to be patient sometimes. Iit was supposed to be my plate, it was supposed to be my glass, and it became their plate. It became their glasses. But that was interesting, because I had to learn let go. So patience is part of the game. And it goes with the film, because there's a pace that goes with a film that is about being slow, like sitting back and living life in a different way.

I'm curious how that slowness that you talk about matches with your style as an actor. Does it align?

I learned with the first shot being this long, cinematic flow of filming the cooking—in different temperatures, different timing—that, “Okay, he's using his camera like a brush, and he needs time here.” I knew I was going into a place that was different, following his pace, following what he wanted. But you're being revealed in acting. Emotion has its own pace, and you just open yourself up, and it comes through you. A couple of times, he came to me and he asked me, kneeling down, “Can you play neutral?” And I said, “What do you mean neutral?” And he said, “Well, without intention, without acting.” I said, “No, I can't. I'm an actress. I'm feeling. I cannot be nothing. Or if I'm nothing, it needs to be specific.” He was a little taken aback. It was my way also to resist a little bit of what he's done in [2006’s] Eternity, another film of his—where the actors, the actresses, were not expressing emotions that much. I was fascinated by the feeling that you have at the end of it, but I was a little annoyed by the not feeling of some of the actors. I thought, “If I'm going to be working with him, I'll give as much feelings as I can.” I'm bringing the emotions that I want you to be surprised by. It's very much like what's happening between Dodin and me as a cook. It needs to have resistance between them in order to lift yourself into another place, into an even higher place of art. You can admire each other, respect each other, but you have to resist a little bit too, I think.

The film has been widely embraced since its Cannes premiere, including here in the US. I know you’re in Los Angeles right now. How are you experiencing the campaign?

We are all very surprised and loving the experience, because it's wonderful to feel loved, to feel embraced. This film shows an old way of living, an ancient way of living that we lost in a lot of places, especially in cities. We want to do so much, we want to achieve so much, and we forget about living. Our senses are very subtle, and we are brutal with those senses. So this film allows us to go back to a place that we can all have. It's a little sad, because you could have that a little more in your life. It made me reflect a lot about my life, this film, I have to say. I bought a countryside house a year ago after this film. I really wanted to have a big kitchen like that. Because when you have a nice kitchen, you want to cook. It's home. It's warm, it's where it burns, it's where you gather, you're uniting with each other again. It's special.

It’s why I’d asked you earlier about the slower pace of the film. You’re someone who works a lot and rather intensively.

Yeah, and I'm not guilty, working that much, because I have passion for what I do, but I should take care of my health a little more, because you give, you give, you give, you give. Your emotions, it's burning—it's burning in you. You're really living different lives through acting. It's wonderful, but at the same time, it's very demanding. There's some kind of reward when you are giving, because you feel alive, you feel that's why you're here, that you were born to do that. It gives purpose—sort of a, “You're doing what you're supposed to.” Like a tap on the shoulder.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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