“The Pot Au Feu” from French-Vietnamese director Trần Anh Hùng may be one of the most radical films competing for a Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes. The sensorial film, set in late-19th century France, opens with a mouthwatering cooking sequence that runs nearly 40 minutes and portrays a slow-burning romance with a minimalist plot. Yet, Hùng, best known for his Cannes’ Golden Camera-winning “The Scent of Green Papaya” and Venice Golden Lion-winning “Cyclo,” tells Variety he’s always been confident “The Pot Au Feu” would strike a chord beyond the foodie niche, and it has. The film earned some of the competition’s strongest reviews on the heels of its world premiere and a US deal is currently being negotiated by Gaumont. Variety‘s Guy Lodge praised the film for holding its audience “entirely on the pleasures of beauty, vicarious indulgence and, eventually, the human care inherent in haute cuisine.”
Set in the world of French gastronomy in 1885, the film is loosely based on Marcel Rouffe’s 1924 novel “The Passionate Epicure” about a fictional bon vivant character, Dodin Bouffant, who is inspired by the famous French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. “The Pot of Feu” charts the relationship between Eugenie (Juliette Binoche), an esteemed cook, and Dodin (Benoit Magimel), the fine gourmet she has been working for over the last 20 years. Growing fonder of one another, their bond turns into a romance and gives rise to delicious dishes that impress even the world’s most illustrious chefs. The film marks the reunion of Binoche and Magimel, who fell in love while starring in Diane Kurys’s “Les Enfants du Siecle” in 1999 and shares a daughter, Hannah Magimel. The film is produced by Olivier Delbosc (“Lost Illusions,”“Stars at Noon”). In an interview with VarietyHùng discussed the filmmaking challenges of shooting elaborate cooking scenes, the joy of seeing Binoche and Magimel reunited, the role of gastronomy in 18th-century France and his dream of making a movie about the Buddha.
Did you expect “Pot au Feu” to garner such critical praise out of Cannes?
Forgive my candor but each time I make a film I’m convinced it’s going to be a hit! I always think people will love it.
Why did you want to make a film about gastronomy?
What was important to me was not to make a film about gastronomy. It was more about the filmmaking challenge that presented gastronomy. My first challenge was to make a film that didn’t look like any other. The idea was to weave gastronomy into a love story and see how a man and a woman share the same passion for the culinary arts and have lived together for over 25 years to form this spiritual bond.
Why did you want to adapt Marcel Rouffe’s novel?
When I read this novel there were several pages where he talked about food that touched me and inspired me. The film starts where the book begins, it’s like a prequel. This fictional character of Dodin remained so beloved and gave birth to a club of gastronomes. There’s even a restaurant in Paris which was one of (former France President) Francois Mitterand’s favorites and even to this day there is an annual dinner organized in the South of France that features a menu which the prince offers to Dodin in the book. I actually found out about this dinner by reading a book by Jim Harrison who participated in one of these epic meals.
Your film also suggests gastronomy played a role in French history and diplomacy.
Yes, gastronomy played an important part in diplomacy, especially before the French Revolution, all these great chefs worked for princes and kings. When heads started falling during the Revolution all these chefs found themselves unemployed. That led to the emergence of restaurants and brothels around the Palais-Royal (an affluent neighborhood in Paris). People would come there to enjoy the sensual pleasures of food and flesh. It was a world-famous attraction. The French were known for their savoir-vivre and created this notion that a meal has to be served in a certain order to be harmonious. Even Napoléon, who didn’t care about food at all, had understood the importance of meals to ease diplomatic discussions. That’s why he gave a castle to Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (his minister of foreign affairs) and told him to hire a chef, Antonin Carême, who would be his eyes and ears. It was Auguste Escoffier, born 13 years after Carême died, who brought French gastronomy into a modern era with palaces and led the industrialization of gastronomy.
“Pot au Feu” stars with a 40-minute sequence depicting the meticulous preparation of a meal. I’ve never seen that, even in a cooking show.
The goal was obviously to show something that we’ve never seen before, and at the same time something that’s extremely ordinary, without any extra spectacular elements. I thought that if we filmed this choreography in a cinematic way it would become magnificent, like a ballet.
How was it to deal with so much food on set?
It was quite complicated and very disturbing for Pierre Gagnaire and Michel Naves who were our advisors on the set, to see us start by filming the cooked meals and then filming the raw ingredients. We shot so much food! For example for the pot au feu we used 40 kilos of meat!
What did you do with all that food?
We ate it all! The crew was big. So we have the best meals on set. Every morning I would come on set unnoticed and when then Michel would come everyone clapped their hands. I felt jealous. He totally stole the show.
How was it to reunite Juliette Binoche with Benoît Magimel, after all these years?
They’re both great actors and total pros. They got into their respective characters immediately. It was very touching for me to know their history in real life and see them depict this story on screen. During the filming there were some incredible moments, for example when Juliette kisses Dodin (Magimel) even though it wasn’t in the script. Benoît got overwhelmed and came to me to ask “it wasn’t in the script, right?” Or at times, Benoît would forget his lines and tell me “Oh sorry, I got lost in her eyes.”
Do you have a dream project?
I dream of making a film about the Buddha. He’s so little known. He’s not as sexy as Jesus Christ, but I think it would be so interesting to make a film about him because his spiritual legacy spans 25 centuries and is extraordinary. He has healed so many people on this earth and his doctrine deserves to be known. I would also love to make a film in Vietnam with an entirely female cast.