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A Satisfying 'Taste'

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 29, 2001


    'The Taste of Others' A few of the French friends in "A Taste of Others."
(Miramax Films)
There are some things the French do better than we do, and the small movie is one. Just compare "The Anniversary Party," the pseudo-vérité flick by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming about a circle of presumed and fractious friends, with "The Taste of Others (Le gout des autres)," a film so true, so "psyche-vérité," that it doesn't even pretend to think big. The devil may be in the details, and these characters' personal demons certainly are, but their strengths, and the film's, ultimately are as well.

The coherence of the film – and an odd but palpable conviction of its worth – derive in part from the fact that two of the primary actors, Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, wrote the screenplay with various colleagues in mind. (Jaoui turned a hat trick by also directing the film, her first, and earned the Montreal film festival's Grand Prize and an Oscar nomination for best foreign film.) "I nearly missed him," a girl says near the end, speaking of the sweet-hearted bar owner she took to be a just good-time guy; and the whole movie is about the presumptions we make (the "taste" of the title) and the many chances we have of catching, or missing, the real character of others.

Bacri plays Castella, a successful businessman about to clinch a major business deal with a group of Iranian investors – and the pivotal character around which the various interrelationships of this movie rotate. First Castella's chauffeur (Alain Chabat, who resembles a French Peter Riegert) and subsequently the bodyguard hired to protect Castella until the Iranian deal is complete (Gerard Lanvin) have casual affairs with a hash-dealing waitress (Jaoui) whose bar is the regular hangout of a group of actors and artists – the sort of sophisticated post-Bohemian artists who look down on the plain and often painfully clumsy Castella.

The two circles begin to overlap when Castella, dragged to a production of Racine's "Berenice" by his wife, Angelique (Christiane Millet), unexpectedly becomes infatuated by an eloquent actress, Clara (Anne Alvaro), who in her mousier everyday life has been hired to teach him English. His evident bourgeois boorishness, epitomized by his outmoded hearth brush of a mustache and his ignorance of literature, naturally repulses her; and his apparent attempts to buy into the goodwill of her friends – buying dinner and rounds of drinks, paintings, etc. – only embarrass her more.

That few of the characters in the film are as they seem is no surprise; but the delicacy of their unmaskings is very fine. Castella's rudeness to his dapper assistant is a sort of defensiveness against the condescension he has assumed the private-school graduate holds him in; the chauffeur who thinks love and sex are separate finds himself caught between (and betrayed by) both; and the hired gun, who self-righteously turned in his police badge when he and his partner were told to lay off a corrupt politician, discovers that kindness and character are often camouflaged by circumstance.

The waitress-with-the-heart-of-gold is, of course, more than she seems (and despite this being Jaoui's first time on both sides of the camera, she has mastered melding perfectly into the textures of her cast). And Clara, the one who tells Castella that the art of acting is empathy – to understand and to express "another's desires" – realizes that her prejudices have been perhaps the strongest of all.

Not all ends happily: Some relationships survive, some surprise, some dissolve, and there are a few strings left thankfully untied. But there is a kind of victory, a growth of the heart, for nearly all involved.

The one exception seems to be Angelique, an all-floral "decorator" who spoils her dog, disposes of the one more or less real piece of art that Castella buys, and talks down to her divorced sister-in-law and everybody else – a natteringly, irrevocably self-centered type. She's the least successful character, and Jaoui doesn't seem to have given Millet any wriggle room to be more likable. But that's the point, of course – we had her stereotyped from the start. Not our type.

Okay, so it's not entirely subtle. We said it was a small movie. But at least it's not small-minded.

"The Taste of Others (Le Gout des Autres)" (Unrated 112 minutes) – Minor profanity. In French with subtitles. At Visions Cinema/Bistro/Lounge.


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