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Movie Review

Gently Accounting for 'Taste of Others'

The charming and incisive French dramatic comedy is an Academy Award nominee for best foreign-language film.

March 02, 2001|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Jean-Jacques Castella may be a successful factory owner in a provincial French city, but you wouldn't want to vouch for his taste in clothes. Or art. Or much of anything else. To paraphrase the blues lyric, if the man didn't have bad taste he wouldn't have any taste at all.

The charming, incisive French dramatic comedy "The Taste of Others" turns on this concern with cultivation and discernment, on our inevitable but also inevitably arbitrary focus on what people's taste is and the part that plays in whom we love and who loves us. Paraphrasing Sartre's famous dictum that hell is other people, this film points out that hell can be other people's taste as well as what they think of ours.

A recent nominee for the best foreign-language Oscar and winner of four Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscar (including best picture and best screenplay), "The Taste of Others" has been enormously popular at the French box office. Graced with the smooth accessibility of mainstream fare as well as the unexpected pungency of a more idiosyncratic point of view, it's the latest product of one of the most currently successful of French filmmaking teams.

As both actors and writers, Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri have been the creative force behind a series of smart, bitingly funny productions that include Alain Resnais' "Same Old Song" and Cedric Klapisch's "Family Resemblances." With this story of what love can and cannot make us do, of a frog who desperately wants to woo a princess, Jaoui has decided, with excellent results, to take on the directing as well.

Co-writer Bacri stars as the rumpled captain of industry Castella, who lives not unhappily with his wife Beatrice (Brigitte Catillon), a frustrated interior decorator who gets on with animals better than people. With his thick mustache and perennial hangdog look, Castella may be brusque and not particularly sophisticated, but everyone acknowledges him to be a very good-hearted guy.

Making Castella's life more trying than usual is a big deal he's putting together with some Iranians, a transaction that means he needs a bodyguard named Moreno (Cesar winner Gerard Lanvin) in addition to his trusting chauffeur Deschamps (Alain Chabat). He's also being pressured to take English lessons, but the no-nonsense approach of his teacher Clara Devaux (Cesar winner Anne Alvaro) is not to his liking.

Then, one fateful night, Castella is dragged by his wife to watch his niece in a terribly highbrow 17th century verse drama. An actress comes onstage and, in one of those coups de foudre beloved by French filmmakers, Castella is instantaneously smitten. And who does this goddess turn out to be but, yes, the woman who tried to teach him English.

There are more obstacles to this relationship than the mundane one of his being married and her being rather fussy about the men she lets into her life. The cultural worlds these two inhabit, the crowds they run with--their tastes, in short--are so different that Clara is inclined to be dismissive of his attentions. And when Clara's friends patronize the industrialist he is too out of it to notice.

A similarly unlikely potential pairing occurs in chauffeur Deschamps' social circle. He runs into a barmaid named Manie (director and co-writer Jaoui in a spirited, gaminlike performance), whom he slept with 10 years ago but doesn't remember. The bodyguard also becomes aware of her, and though he is a truculent ex-cop and she has a noticeably active social life that includes dealing hashish on the side, there is something about the way they look at each other. . . .

All of this romantic back and forth unfolds gradually and in charming ensemble style. As the characters think about seducing each other, as they inevitably complicate their lives without being able to help themselves, the film is simultaneously seducing us. "The Taste of Others" is the opposite of front-loaded: The more we see of these people, the more we understand their foibles and the more they amuse and captivate us.

As actors themselves, Jaoui and Bacri have written a script that gives the performers room to roam around. The best thing about "The Taste of Others" might be its transcendent tolerance, its fondness for all its characters, even those it half-mocks. "Their look on the world," an actor told the New York Times, "is acid but also extremely tender." In this world, no one, except possibly the terminally cynical, is made to look foolish, and the value of a kind heart should never be underestimated.

*

* Unrated. Times guidelines: It's all extremely genteel.

'The Taste of Others'

Anne Alvaro: Clara

Jean-Pierre Bacri: Castella

Brigitte Catillon: Beatrice

Alain Chabat: Deschamps

Agnes Jaoui: Manie

Gerard Lanvin: Moreno

*

Offline Releasing, in association with Miramax Zoe, presents a Telema/Les Films A4 and France 2 Cinema co-production with the participation of Canal+, released by Miramax. Director Agnes Jaoui. Producers Christian Berard, Charles Gassot. Executive producer Jacques Hinstin. Screenplay Agnes Jaoui & Jean-Pierre Bacri. Cinematographer Laurent Dailland. Editor Herve De Luze. Costumes Jackie Stephens-Budin. Music Jean-Charles Jarrell. Production design Francois Emmanuelli. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.

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