From a screenwriting point of view, making an ensemble character piece where otherwise unrelated characters have their lives intersect with one another in some way is the toughest kind of story to tell. Besides having to create engaging characters, the connections cannot seem too convenient and yet a certain level of convenience must occur in order for every character to have a connection with one another. CRASH is a film that immediately comes to mind when I think of these kinds of stories. It took Los Angelenos from different walks of life and interconnected their stories with each other. Since its controversial Best Picture win, the movie has been derided as being pretentious and overly preachy. However, I felt the connections worked and I bought into the overall theme/message of the story. THE TASTE OF OTHERS is another such film, but I think it works even better than CRASH does and that’s mostly because it doesn’t strive to impart some grandiose message like racial tolerance to its audience. The film occurs on a smaller scale and it basically comments upon the snobbery of how various social groups separate themselves from the rest of society because they feel that for some reason or another they are superior.

THE TASTE OF OTHERS is a 1999 French film that was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. Its begins with a middle-aged man (Jean-Pierre Bacri), Mr. Castella, whose company is about to sign a deal with some Iranian company. His company’s insurer feels that Mr. Castella is a very valuable asset to the company and to insure against a potential kidnapping, its assigned two bodyguards (Gerard Lanvin and Alain Chabat) to accompany he and his wife at all times. Mr. Castella has also been signed up to take English lessons from a French woman (Clara Devaux), who is an aging theatre actress who teaches English to pay the bills. One night Castella’s wife drags him to the theatre to see his niece perform in a play. Resistant at first, Castella ends up getting totally involved in the play and he takes special notice of his English teacher, who is playing one of the lead roles. Castella becomes infatuated with her, but she regards him as a dim-witted, uncultured chauvinist who doesn’t understand nor appreciate the arts nor her circle of artist friends. In the meantime, the two bodyguards meet a bartender (Agnes Jaoui, who is also the film’s director), who happens to be friends with the English teacher/actress and one of them develops a relationship with her.

Credit European filmmakers for not giving a damn about grabbing the audience within the first 5-10 minutes of a movie. You have to get through the first 20-30 minutes of the film before the movie begins to get interesting. The setup is slow and at first confusing as you become acquainted with the characters and their relationships with each other. Initially, THE TASTE OF OTHERS felt like just another French relationship comedy that wasn’t worth giving a damn about. However, as the various plotlines progress, you start to not only care for the characters, but more importantly you begin to see the differences between all the characters’ worlds and how they contrast with each other. I felt sorry for Castella because he makes such a strong effort to fit in with his English teacher’s artist friends, but he’s dismissed and ridiculed for not ‘getting it.’ Although his interest in that world is at first motivated for his attraction to his teacher, Castella develops a genuine interest in art and theatre, but its no avail with the teacher simply because he doesn’t conform to the rules of her world.

Similarly, the bodyguard’s relationship with the bartender is complicated by the different outlook the two characters have. The bartender sells hash on the side to make extra income and she doesn’t think anything of it because she doesn’t consider hash to be any more dangerous than legal stimulants like tobacco and alcohol. The bodyguard has a more old-fashioned, conservative mindset and he’s shocked by his lover’s dismissive attitude toward what is legal or illegal.

These sociological observations is what distinguishes A TASTE OF OTHERS from other relationship comedies. It doesn’t just stop with exploring the romantic relationships between the characters. Castella, for example, doesn’t just love the English teacher. He begins to love the world she represents, which is that of art and ideas. He realizes that the world he lives in is a shallow, materialistic existence where his wife, an interior decorator who believes beauty is covering your house with floral shit, makes every decision for the two of them. The movie does make a judgment on others and for that, it will have its detractors. It criticizes those who measure their lives by the material things they attain, such as Castella and his wife. It also criticizes those who live their lives strictly by the book and take no risks, such as the bodyguard. Its an interesting theory that you’re not going to find in most Hollywood movies because its an idea that automatically alienates a certain portion of the populace.

I ended up enjoying THE TASTE OF OTHERS more than I expected I would. It’s a study of opposite attractions that delves way beyond romantic opposites. It asks the question what constitutes good taste, for which the movie provides an answer.

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