“Taste,” in this instance, refers not to flavor but to those likes and dislikes, interests and preferences by which we define ourselves and others. As Western culture becomes increasingly egalitarian and age, sex, race and occupation are less often seen as indicators of character, taste remains the great divider, supplying us with groups to belong to, aspire to or look down on. Taste in music, books, food and clothes creates seemingly unshakable allegiances and enclaves as fiercely provincial as could be found in any ancient regime. As we pay lip service to diversity, the Us vs. Them mentality thrives. The rap fan thinks the opera lover lives on some distant and insane planet (and vice versa) while the Thai food devotee looks with disapproval at the coarse desires of the McDonald’s habitué.
But since taste is an even more purely cultural construct than the old, more physically based prejudices, it’s a much more vulnerable conceit, a collection of cherished but not necessarily imprinted perspectives whose shielding facade can be suddenly pierced. This is why a Jane Austen fanatic can end up marrying a Tom Clancy fan. Or, as in The Taste of Others, a boorish businessman can become obsessed with a sensitive, classically trained actress.
The businessman, Castella (Jean-Pierre Bacri), has all the earmarks of a self-made man, a bluff confidence combined with a non-malignant insensitivity — the kind of person who will refer to people he doesn’t like as “fags” until one day a new acquaintance lets him know how offensive this is. After that he’ll never do it again. He just needed to be clued in.
Castella is married to Angelique (Christiane Millet), a minor-league culture vulture who one day drags him to a play her niece is appearing in. This turns out to be Racine’s Berenice, to which Castella’s first reaction is “Oh shit ... it’s in verse.” In the lockbox of his self-image, Castella knows he’s not a Racine kind of guy. But his attention is caught by the lead actress, Clara (Anne Alvaro), with her large mournful eyes and pebbly contralto voice. At first he’s transfixed. Returning for a second viewing, sans wife, he’s reduced to tears.
Context is all, and at first Castella doesn’t recognize Clara as the woman he had just recently turned down for a position as his English tutor. He offers her the job again which leads to the film’s core relationship and the slow breaking down of Clara’s own tyranny of taste, the preconceptions which prevent her from seeing Castella as anything other than a prime example of bourgeois cloddishness.
Surrounding the central duo is a brace of secondary characters who are working through their own issues, most notably Castella’s chauffeur (Alain Chabat) and his bodyguard (Gérard Lanvin) both of whom are having a dalliance with a local hashish-dealing barmaid (Agnès Jaoui). The film (which Bacri co-wrote with his wife Jaoui — the same team which scripted Cedric Klapisch’s much more schematic Un Air de Famille — and which finds Jaoui making her directorial debut) moves between the various interactions and makes its points about the obscure motives of the heart with intelligence and a light touch. It’s also very entertaining and especially recommended to those who think subtitled French films are beyond the scope of their taste. Surprise yourself.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Click here to visit the official The Taste of Others Web site.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.