La Passion de Dodin Bouffant Review
We teach children it’s a sin to waste food. But it is also a sin to waste film and nobody seems to have taught that to writer-director Tràn Anh Hùng. Strangely, he seems to have mistaken the Cannes Film Festival for an episode of MasterChef. During the first half of La Passion de Dodin Bouffant, I wondered if what was brewing on screen was perhaps a joke. Can you really send a film to Cannes where the basic ingredient is visualising and salivating over French recipes of the 19th century? The answer is yes, provided you get two of the biggest names in French cinema, Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel, you can get away with a lot. Or in this case, with not much at all.
The excuse for a plot here comes in the shape of a glutted romantic drama set in the early 20th century about a renowned chef called Dodin Bouffant, played by Benoit Magimel who is trying to get his cook of twenty years Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) to marry him. They live in a chateau and seem to spend the majority of their time cooking despairingly intricate French recipes – it takes 20 ingredients to make a sauce, and apparently one boils, then freezes, then bakes lettuce over here.
Disconcertingly, the majority of screen time is also spent re-enacting these delusionally complex recipes and the so-called plot is practically thrown under the bus. If the film-maker had initially intended to make a drama, the storyline must have gotten waylaid in a thickset recipe book – thickset like Magimel, this staple ingredient of French cinema lately. It is hard to objectively judge the performances of Binoche, one of my favourite actresses of all time, and Magimel, who has been winning everything he’s nominated for, in this undercooked romance. We know they are among the best French actors, we know they are a former real life couple, we badly want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Still, it is difficult to fathom what the thought process was when these supremely experienced actors signed up for these roles in the first place. In their defence, they do seem somewhat invested in this film, especially Magimel. Binoche is more of a wallflower, presumably because of her character’s status as a servant rebuffing her employer’s advances; possibly because halfway through filming she realised what a nonsensical concoction she had embarked upon. At the end of the day, both characters are devoid of any depth or dramatic drive – other than a shared love of cooking, that completely overpowers the bland romance flickering in the background. The viewer is so cloyed with all the food frolicking going on that there is hardly any room left for engaging with the paltry love story. It is immaterial whether or not she will accept his marriage proposal, and he is as expressive in his grief when she dies as he would be if his crème fraiche had gone off.
As a small compensation, the film is beautifully shot with luscious detail of meat production, sensuous close-ups of textures of the flesh, flowing sauces, mouth-watering diaphanous desserts. If Tràn Anh Hùng had intended to film a Cordon Bleu school advertisement he would have struck gold. I recently watched his breakthrough The Scent of Green Papaya which won the best first film prize at Cannes in 1993 and while there was a certain cloying repetitiveness of detail, nothing prefigured this woefully pared down narrative and the substitution of a recipe book for a screenplay. Squandering actors of the calibre of Binoche and Magimel is a pity.
The screening of La Passion de Dodin Bouffant was the most tempted I was to walk out of a film during this festival, though I did not on principle. Talented people probably worked years to cook up this gastronomical disaster of a film, and yes, it is a sin to waste film.