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A Taste of Culture

A new French film takes as its subject an industrialist's cultural awakening

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A Taste of Others, said the ads. I smacked my lips and girded my loins for one of those barbed, witty essays on cannibalism that the devilish French do so devilishly well. Alas, it turned out to be a misprint. The film is really called The Taste of Others. My heart sank. I pursed my lips, ungirded my sadly underexercised loins, and prepared myself for one of those witty, barbed studies of interior decoration that the peevish French do so peevishly well.

In fact, Agnes Jaoui's sharp, vivid, quiet film is indeed closer to the Interior Decoration model than to the Cannibalism genre. But it also seems committed to straddling the boundaries between these extremes. It has neither the ponderous gravity of such gritty, prepackaged devastations as Hate or Humanity, nor the airy jocularity of those French farces involving protracted dinner parties, made by people who seem to have seen The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but misunderstood it to mean that the bourgeoisie really are charming.

Jaoui's tale of an industrialist's tentative ventures into the sphere of culture--when he becomes smitten with an actress who's giving him English lessons--mixes some of the winsome social satire of early Renoir with the modest high comedy of something like Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart. The arch pedantry of Eric Rohmer's "moral tales" is never far away from this film, either, though it's clear that Jaoui is more interested in singular detail than in ready-made moralism.

The film's subject is bourgeois life. No surprise there, but the treatment is striking. Beginning in the late '50s, the French New Wave of filmmaking (Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol) made stomping on the bourgeoisie very much its chief business, but when some of these directors, notably Truffaut, achieved commercial success, they were accused by others of betraying the movement and joining forces with the enemy. Recent French cinema has continued to reflect this split between Marxist critique and bourgeois humanism, and Jaoui's film is about as reflective of that split as any in recent memory-- except, perhaps, Alain Resnais' The Same Old Song, one of the great films of the '90s, for which Jaoui's wrote the script.

Take, for instance, the treatment of the factory owner (played by Jean-Pierre Bacri). The fact that he's the main character is a significant point in itself. The subject of the movie is his cultural awakening. A director like Godard would never broach such material because he'd think it was reactionary to grant that factory owners might be capable of cultural awakenings. And he'd be right. By rights, this film should be little more than an apologia for the end of class consciousness in the late corporate age. But Jaoui, in her briskly delicate manner, brings critical dispositions to bear on the subject, and she satirizes the industrialist--so we never lose sight of his limitations--and humanizes him at the same time. That's what places the film so close to the work of Renoir or Malle: The humanism doesn't undermine the satire, and the satire doesn't encroach upon the humanism.

The result is not as one might expect--a hackneyed portrait in the "warmth of the human spirit," or some such cliché. Instead, it's a sharp, gentle study in the class bases of culture. Early in the film, the industrialist's wife drags him to the theater. He hates theater, he tells her--but in the audience, as he watches the play, we see him seized, suddenly, unexpectedly, by aesthetic transport. It's a lovely scene, easily worthy of Malle, shot in quick, unemphatic close-up, with open rhythms that give us room to discover the feeling of the scene.

The plot as a whole is loose, relaxed, rangy, with many subplots and supple digressions--like a Feydeau farce, but without the intricacy or the anxiety. At first, you think the subplots are supposed to add up to something; when you realize they won't, you're freed up to think about how they work in the intellectual logic of the film. And that, above all, is the refreshing thing: Though it's never didactic, the film has an intellectual logic. And though it's never cloying, it is "warm": It refuses to hate even the characters it exposes as wrong, deceitful, greedy. Under the intellectual logic there's an emotional logic.

The industrialist begins to collect art because of his feelings for the actress, and he never quite sees through this bad impulse--the instinct to conquer what he can't understand by buying it. The film sees through it, unforgivingly, and still grants the character a certain dignity, yet refuses to redeem him. There are no quick little epiphanies here, only small moments of mysterious perception. The actress herself, not knowing what she thinks of the man, finds herself hoping he will come to one of her performances. She reaches the end of the performance--she has a long, drawn face, big, worried eyes, and tight lips--and then she glimpses him, during the curtain call, applauding happily in the audience. And at once, the worry leaves her eyes, the tight lips unfold into a wide, sudden, spontaneous smile. But then it's over. She hasn't "learned" the lessons another kind of film would want to teach her. It's just a smile--a luminous, beautiful smile. EndBlock

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