Nearly two decades ago now, first on the stage and then on screen, Julie Walters made a career for herself in Willy Russell's Educating Rita, the story of a working-class British woman whose hunger for education and freshness of viewpoint allowed her new insights into presumably settled subjects and thereby the arresting habit of teaching something to her teachers. French writer/director Agnes Jaoui bathes her narrative in The Taste of Others in the same thematic fountain.
The Taste of Others is the story of Jean-Jacques Castella (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a wealthy but entirely unsophisticated factory owner in an unnamed French city several hours from Paris. Jean-Jacques has made all the money he needs and is in the process of turning management of his business over to a new employee. Perhaps looking for new worlds to conquer, certainly exhibiting a hungry spirit, Jean-Jacques begins to take English lessons from a local actress named Clara (Anne Alvaro).
The lessons never go very well. Jean-Jacques has trouble even pronouncing the word "the," and a quiet joke emerges as we discover that Clara's English isn't really all that good, either. But through a coincidence -- his niece is in a play with Clara -- Jean-Jacques sees Clara onstage, and he pitches head over heels in love with her. The feelings are hardly requited.
In the long middle portion of the film Jean-Jacques follows Clara around like a mangy puppy, inviting himself to dine with Clara and her friends, showing up at art exhibitions he knows she's attending. His mere presence is annoying enough to Clara, and Jean-Jacques can't seem to stop himself from offering up sentiments Clara and her friends think ignorant and offensive. He laughs uproariously at his own bathroom jokes, oblivious to the shuddering reactions of those in Clara's company. He knows nothing of theater and art but doesn't hesitate to interject his opinions however inevitably they diverge from those of Clara and her friends.
Eventually, they take to talking over his head, dropping ironic references to Ibsen and Strindberg they know he doesn't understand. And here the tide turns. To this point we have seen Jean-Jacques as a boob and a creep. Suddenly we see him as vulnerable and undeserving of the humiliation he suffers at the hands of snobs.
The density of the script for The Taste of Others, written by Jaoui and Bacri, will make the picture forbidding for some viewers. The film is talky and unemphatic. The beginning is devoid of a narrative hook and completely confusing. You don't know what to pay attention to or why, the effect of walking through a crowded restaurant and hearing snippets of conversation from a series of tables, not knowing which, if any, of the diners you'll ever meet. And the detailed romantic entanglements of a bartendress named Manie (Jaoui) with two of Jean-Jacques' employees -- his bodyguard Frank (Gerard Lanvin) and his chauffeur Bruno (Alain Chabat) -- develop into a subplot that yields to analysis about theme without ever attaining much narrative drive or clarity.
Still, individual scenes in The Taste of Others are like timed cold capsules for the feverishly smug soul; you keep thinking about them, and their bracing intent becomes clear hours or even days later. Since it is obvious that Jean-Jacques lacks Clara's range of knowledge about art and literature, we assume as she does that any opinion he expresses that diverges from hers is merely stupid. And it's that very attitude the film successfully endeavors to skewer. Moreover, Jaoui and Bacri construct their characters in more depth than movies commonly manage. Frank seems a tough guy, but at some level he's a coward. Bruno seems a cad, but he's willing to look at others through the magnifying glass of his own weakness. Manie appears to be a libertine, but maybe she sees the world more clearly than anyone else. Clara is a snob, but she's capable of reinventing herself.
And Jean-Jacques, of course is the most complicated of all. He's insensitive in a variety of ways; he's crude, he's ill-educated, and he's a homophobe. But as Bruno observes about him, Jean-Jacques isn't mean. He never hurts someone on purpose, and he's willing to apologize when he's wrong. Most important, he's a seeker. The world isn't wrapped up for him the way it is for so many. Jean-Jacques is willing to learn and to change as a result of what he learns. And in this crucial regard, he's way ahead of all those who think him so far behind.
In a pivotal scene Jean-Jacques writes a poem for Clara in English in which he confesses his regard for her. The poem is badly written, of course, and Clara responds by immediately setting out to correct the grammar and misused verb tenses. And therein lies the film's core theme. In assessing most all human affairs, substance, not appearance, is what ultimately matters.
- The Taste of Others, which screens Monday, Jan. 28, at Canal Place, shows that intellectual sophistication doesn't guarantee fundamental human decency.