The Taste of Others refers not to how people taste (which would make for a tasty little film in and of itself), but to their powers of discrimination, as in “he has no taste.” Agnes Jaoui’s engaging French comedy is about people who have taste, those who don’t have it, those who want it, and those who have it and don’t know it. Jaoui takes the stories of several people who judge and are judged, and follows them to a delightful resolution.
The film is a tight ensemble piece, featuring performances by Jaoui herself and the film’s co-writer Jean-Pierre Bacri. They know just how to play the characters they created to achieve the right comic tone. Because the film relies heavily on dialogue—initially it seems to jump from one conversation another—it takes awhile for it to grab hold with non-French speakers. But don’t make the mistake of misjudging it or giving up too soon just because of the subtitles. The conversational technique is actually very effective in crafting an amusing and touching story about people who make snap judgements about each other.
Bacri, a very winning actor, gives the film’s best performance as Castella, a wealthy—though not terribly cultured—industrialist, whose business dealings with the Iranians require him to hire bodyguards for himself and his interior decorator wife. The ever-present bodyguards, played by French comic actor Alain Chabat and Gerard Lanvin, provide plenty of comic relief.
When the Castellas grudgingly attend a play in which their young niece has a minor role, Castella is struggling to stay awake until his English tutor, Mrs. Devaux (Anne Alvaro), comes on stage. She’s a 40-ish actress who is not particularly attractive, but her moving performance so mesmerizes Castella that he sees the play again. He goes backstage to offer his awkward congratulations: “I hate theater, but …” It’s just the beginning of his many awkward attempts to ingratiate himself with Mrs. Devaux, who dismisses him as a complete charlatan. She’d just as soon avoid her pupil, who behaves like a smitten schoolboy.
There are plenty of hilarious scenes in which Castella tags along with Devaux and her snooty friends, who take haughty pleasure in teasing this man who they view as so inferior. Of course, he’s so oblivious that when Devaux’s set makes fun of him, he doesn’t even realize it. He’s the kind of fellow who hears a famous aria and hums along the lyrics of a “Juanita Banana” commercial. Well-meaning though he is, Castella suffers a rather bad case of foot-in-mouth disease. At an art gallery opening, he jokes about “all the fags” to Devaux’s friends, whom he fails to realize are gay.
But Bacri makes sure we don’t just dismiss Castella as a cretin. The actor makes him a very sympathetic and likeable character. He has a good heart. His eagerness to please Devaux is more touching than pathetic. When he overhears her say she doesn’t like moustaches, he shaves his off, then is crestfallen when she doesn’t even notice. The film’s most poignant scene, expertly played with the right blend of comedy and pathos, comes when Castella turns in the sweet and very genuine poem he has written in English about his teacher. He puts his feelings on the line, and is crushed when Mrs. Devaux simply corrects his grammar. You can’t help but feel sorry for him.
Castella may not have great taste and he may be at the mercy of the taste of others, but he’s a genuinely decent man. His taste, for better or worse, is his own. His reactions to plays, to art and to people are completely honest. He returns to the theater because he is genuinely touched by Devaux’s performance. He buys art from her young friend not to please her, but because he genuinely likes the work. In fact, his purchase of the painting is truly liberating for him. It marks not only the first time he buys something he likes, but also the first time he stands up to his wife, who has imposed her own taste on their home and lives.
In many ways, the audience makes the same mistake that Castella’s wife and Mrs. Devaux make. We all underestimate Castella. That he can respond honestly to art and truly appreciate something without having the “proper” background comes as a surprise to the highly cultured Devaux, who is touched by Castella’s sincerity. We’re touched by it, too, because we realize that like Mrs. Devaux we’re all victims of our own taste, which we unfairly insist on applying to others.
To some extent, all of Jaoui’s characters are misjudged and all are dependent on the taste of others. When asked what the hardest thing about performing is, Mrs. Devaux answers that it is not learning the lines, but having to depend on the audience’s reaction. The employee Mr. Castella chastises for putting on “Parisian airs” is himself tired of being judged for being different. The law-and-order bodyguard stops judging the barmaid (Jaoui) for selling hash on the side when he falls in love with her. The highbrow costume designer, who falls for a bartender, sums up the theme of Jaoui’s marvelous film, “It’s funny how you get the wrong idea about people.” Indeed it is.
The Taste of Others (PG-13) HHH Directed by Agnes Jaoui. Starring Jean-Pierre Bacri and Anne Alvaro. In French with subtitles.