Romantic frustration is the common thread that ties together a piquant assembly of interconnected but quite divergent lives in "The Taste of Others," a deft, distinctive and personal multi-character dramedy from France.
Nominated for nine César Awards and this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar, this simple yet manifold film was co-written and directed by a César favorite, actress-screenwriter Agnés Jaoui, who also plays a pivotal role in the film as a bartender at the pub where all the film's stories converge.
Although it is a balanced and equally penetrating ensemble piece, if "The Taste of Others" has a primary character, it would be Castella (Jean-Pierre Barci, Jaoui's husband), an irritable middle-aged businessman in the manufacturing trade whose business negotiations with an Iranian company have forced several changes into his static life. His insurance company has insisted he hire a bodyguard and he's reluctantly agreed to take English lessons so he can more effectively communicate with his international partners.
His English tutor, Clara (Anne Alvaro), is a woman he rudely blows off at their first meeting. But that very night he's dragged to the theater by his persnickety wife (Christiane Millet) to see Racine's "Bérénice," and by chance his teacher is playing the lead. Surprisingly overwhelmed by her performance, Castella suddenly sees beauty and passion in this woman he had dismissed as a forgettable spinster and becomes vexatiously obsessed with her.
Clara is, in fact, desperately lonely and frustrated with her stagnant stage career, but she quickly finds Castella to be a pest, with his clumsy, creepy advances and brusque attempts to wiggle his way into her circle of friends, who hang out at Jaoui's pub.
While stuck spending time there, the businessman's unassuming, emotionally heedless chauffeur (Alain Chabat) and his impudent, sullen but otherwise everyday-joe bodyguard (Gerard Lanvin) both take an interest in Manie (Jaoui), the promiscuous, carefree bartender who deals hashish on the side.
The chauffeur sleeps with her while talking sanguinely about how his deeply loyal girlfriend would never cheat on him while in the U.S. for six months. (When he finds out how wrong he is, it turns his world upside down.) The bodyguard, a self-styled Lothario, sleeps with the bartender, too, and finds himself more affected than he intended, becoming jealous and controlling in the process.
Another track follows the businessman's wife as she busies herself -- uninvited -- with redecorating her freshly divorced sister-in-law's new apartment in Technicolor Grecian-meets-Laura Ashley style.
Themes of fidelity, egotism, self-worth, doubt and disillusionment are woven by subtlety terrific performances as these stories intersect not only narratively (like a less ironic Robert Altman or Woody Allen film), but emotionally as well.
Each character is quite extensively developed, so that even though we only see a glimpse of their lives, we know inherently that there's more to Castella than the incredibly uncouth twit he seems to be, more to Clara than her teetering on the brink of despair and more to the others than meets the eye as well.
"The Taste of Others" is an eloquent, unadorned film of bona fide human susceptibility. Its only bothersome element is the fact that these characters are so authentic and empathetic that when they annoy or act foolish, they become less sympathetic. A tangible desire develops to step through the screen and try to talk some sense into them.
Run time: 112 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 1st March 2000
Distributed by: Artistic License Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: Agnes Jaoui
Starring: Jean-Pierre Bacri as Jean-Charles Castella, Alain Chabat as Bruno Deschamps, Anne Alvaro as Clara Devaux, Agnès Jaoui as Manie, Christiane Millet as Angélique, Gérard Lanvin as Franck Moreno
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