Originally released 1 Mar 2000 (France)
Written by Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnès Jaoui
Directed by Agnès Jaoui
Starring Jean-Pierre Bacri, Agnès Jaoui, Annie Alvaro, Gèrard Lanvin, Alain Chabat , Brigitte Catillion, Christiane Millet
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Witty and charming drama of manners.
The Taste of Others is the best known of the handful of wonderful films done by the French team of Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnès Jaoui (former real life companions), who collaborate by writing the scripts and acting together while Jaoui usually directs. Bacri and Jaoui have made some of the most interesting and beguiling films that have come out of France in the last fifteen years. The Taste of Others received an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Film and won four Cesars, the French version of the Academy Awards. Other films by Bacri/Jaoui worth investigating are Un air de famille (1996, directed by Cèdric Klapisch) and Look at Me (2004).
The Taste of Others has been marketed as a comedy, but it is only of the lightest kind of might be better called a witty drama of manners. This film is built around various pairs brought together with opposing tastes, opinions, and personalities. The central pairing involves a boorish and uncultured wealthy factory owner, Jean-Jacques Castella (Bacri) and his dowdy 40-year old English tutor, Clara Devaux (Annie Alvaro). Castella is being pushed to learn English because of his international trade contacts, and, in his first meeting with Devaux, he blows her off, essentially saying he’ll call her when he is ready. But later when he is dragged by his wife Angèlique (Christiane Millet) to an arty French play (Racine’s Berenice) he discovers his prospective English teacher is in the cast. He becomes utterly captivated by her performance (and of her), so much so he decides he needs English lessons, which he can’t get enough of. At one point, he writes a poem to demonstrate his progress in English, obliquely professing his love for her, with bad results.
Castella soon inserts himself into Clara’s theater and art crowd, making a fool of himself, telling dirty jokes, making snarky comments about “fags” (to a theater group!), and exhibiting astonishing ignorance of the arts. Clara and her companions are not all that commendable, feeling vastly superior and slyly making fun of him with comments to which the dense factory owner is oblivious. But Castella is evolving, and, at an art show of one Clara’s artist friends, he develops an interest in his abstract paintings. He begins spending large amounts of money to bring the art into his business offices and also into his home, where he hangs a handsome painting that clashes with his wife’s frou frou décor.
Clara and her crowd come around to respect Castella, not because he is spending a lot of money on one of their struggling artist friend’s work, but because he genuinely appears to be appreciating the art (Clara was particularly skeptical at first).
The film brings in a number of subplot side pairings involving clashing tastes, one between Castella’s wife, Angèlique, who imagines herself a terrific interior designer (the Castellas’ house has to be seen to be believed) and her sister-in-law, Bèatrice (Brigitte Catallon), who received a house from her brother and unfortunately has to accept Angèlique as her designer. Angèlique imposes her design tastes (the pigs on yellow wallpaper for example) but conflict grows as Bèatrice proceeds to undue it all.
Castella is accompanied everywhere by a bodyguard, Franck Moreno (Gèrard Lanvin) and a driver, Bruno Deschamps (Alain Chabat),who, while waiting for their boss to finish his meetings and his social events (attending Clara’s plays and after show social gatherings), have long conversations about their differing relationships with women. This leads to another pairing, the conservative law-biding Moreno with the liberal pot-dealing waitress Manie (Jaoui), their incompatibility becoming more and more evident as they grow closer together. Bacri and Jaoui’s script so intelligently interlocks all the various pairs narratives together that it never becomes disjointed or confusing.
What makes the film so interesting is not only the how the stories evolve of these clashing tastes and personalities, but also the sparkling dialogue, laced with intelligence and humor, that reveals how our lives often involve awkwardly dealing with the tastes of others in art, culture, relationships, jokes, politics, and pets (there is a running joke about Angèlique’s pet dog, who is a biter).
The film’s leisurely pace allows the conversations to flow, inviting viewers to become entranced with what the complex characters are saying rather than what they are doing (or not doing). Bacri and Jaoui also write for the theater and their films tend to be talky like plays. This quiet film comes across as a slice of real French life. For viewers who have never seen a French film, The Taste of Others is a terrific introduction. It illustrates how the French use film to present the culture and life of France and, more universally, to show how people struggle in their ideas and behavior as they make their way through our civilized and modern society.