Early on in The Taste of Things, a renowned chef asks a young culinary prodigy to taste a consommé and note how the flavor has changed. The prodigy concludes that it’s become less strong, and the chef agrees. “What you lose in taste you gain in color,” he says, explaining that the clarification process has alchemized the broth into something smoother, subtler, gentler, more delicate and pure.

It’s a fitting analogy for the film itself, which forgoes embellishments and is all the more powerful for it. Director Trần Anh Hùng allows long, uninterrupted cooking sequences to speak for themselves. Instead of relying on music to evoke emotion, he scores the movie with a symphony of sounds: the clink of cutlery against china, the sizzle of short ribs in a pan, and the crackle of a hearth, all set against a near-constant backdrop of birdsong and buzzing bees. Sunlight filters through window panes, bathing the room in a dreamy Campion-esque golden glow. 

The Taste of Things takes place in the late 19th century, at the precipice of the haute cuisine movement. The witty “Napoleon of gastronomy” Dodin Bouffant (the craggy-faced Benoît Magimel) and his preternaturally talented cook Eugénie (a radiant Juliette Binoche) have worked alongside one another at a manor in the French countryside for over 20 years and have the kind of culinary chemistry that most can only dream of, executing meals that dazzle their band of bonhomme buddies. On occasion, they also enjoy clandestine hookups. 

When Eugénie’s health begins to fail, Dodin romances her via food. In another example of Hùng’s restraint, Eugénie and Dodin’s closed-door trysts are left to the imagination. The sensual food scenes serve as a stand-in for sex: A shot of a curvaceous pear reclining on a fluffy mound of cream and flowers segues seamlessly into a shot of a nude Eugénie lying on her side in bed. 

The film will inevitably inspire comparisons to the 1987 Danish classic Babette’s Feast, and with good reason: Both are poignant paeans to the pleasures of food and to cooking as an act of love. However, I’d argue that The Taste of Things can be read as a response to Babette’s celebration of unbridled extravagance. The central dish at the heart of the movie is the pot-au-feu, a rustic soup of boiled meat and vegetables, which Dodin and Eugénie endeavor to perfect.

In one scene, Dodin and his friends are invited to join the prince of Eurasia for a “modest meal” that turns out to be an ostentatious eight-hour-long affair, with an endless procession of dishes such as yearling boar, spitted partridge, stuffed sole, stuffed chickens in cream, and turkey a la daube. One of Dodin’s companions refers disparagingly to the hedonistic feast as “abundant and rich, but no light or clarity…a parade with no organization.”

After Dodin returns, Eugénie prepares him a spartan spread of clear soup with wisps of tarragon, biscuits, grenache, and honeyed lime tea, among other things, and it sounds infinitely more appealing than the prince’s decadent repast—proof that the simplest things in life can be superior.

The Taste of Things is currently playing in wide release.