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Der Geschmack der kleinen Dinge / Umami

Director: Slony Sow (France, Japan). Year of Release: 2022

The film opens with a voiceover in Japanese promising to tell the story of a man who’d given up on life. Gabriel Carvin is a top chef whose heart is no longer in his job. He often skips work and drinks too much. One evening, he shoos his family out of the castle in which they live, and settles in front of the telly with a glass of wine, not his first of the night. He has a heart attack and is only saved by a chance visitor who rushes him to the hospital.

Gabriel lets a friend hypnotise him. In a trance, he remembers an old Japanese colleague from 40 years ago. They won first and second place in a big competition. Gabriel goes to his computer and arduously types with one finger. He enters the man’s name into a search engine which may look like Google, but is definitely not Google because this is filmworld. As we’re in filmworld, the first thing that pops up is the name and a photo of his old colleague.

Gabriel decides to fly to Japan and visit his sort-of-friend-a-long-time-ago’s restaurant. This is a sort of thing you do in filmworld. The journey causes lots of high jinx because, get this. Gabriel doesn’t speak Japanese and none of the natives speaks French. He is appalled by the man-sized bedrooms and communal showers before creating his destination and 5 star luxury. Later we’ll encounter an old woman talking about sex which is, of course, hilarious.

While all this is happening, we are occasionally diverted by the odd subplot. Gabriel left the restaurant, just as they are about to be visited by an important influencer with loads of followers. The restaurant is put in the hands of Gabriel’s son, Jean, who has never emerged from his father’s shadow. But it is essential that they impress her because, well, why exactly? What are they going to do with the extra trade following a rave review? Buy another castle?

Meanwhile we see a teenage Japanese young woman moping around. She doesn’t feel like going into uni, preferring to go to the park and stare at the penguins. Every day she takes a pill, but instead of swallowing it, she puts it in a music box. At first, it’s hard to tell whether she’s seriously depressed or just has some fashionable ennui. We later learn that it’s real depression triggered by an ex posting nude photos of her on social media, but this is something we hear almost in passing.

Gabriel finally arrives at his old colleagues restaurant, which turns out to be a small family café, making its #1 ranking on not-Google even more inexplicable. Maybe they have a friend who’s good at SEO programming. He meets the waitress, who turns out to be Fumi, the daughter of his old colleague, who is busy cooking and won’t come out. So she rings her daughter Mai to interpret what Gabriel is saying into Japanese. She follows Gabriel and suggests he tries again the next day.

Gabriel also has a younger son Nino who likes sky diving. I think this is supposed to make him look exciting, but he just comes over as someone who has too much money. Nino refuses to have a mobile phone, but when his father goes missing, he rips one from an art installation which is handily hanging up in his room. He then does the obvious – no, not ring his dad and ask him how he is, but buy a ticket on the first plane to Japan. This is how you behave when you live in a castle. 

When he arrives in Japan, Nino goes to the restaurant, where he meets Mai. He cannot believe that she speaks 5 or 6 languages but has never travelled, nor that she doesn’t ski or snowboard. The rich are not like us, they are a lot more ignorant. And yet, inevitably, the appearance of a privileged waster proves much more therapeutic to Mai than any amount of therapy or pills. You wouldn’t expect anything else from this sort of film

Gérard Depardieu was an important figure in my early cinema-going. We rarely went as a family, as my father couldn’t sit still for more than an hour and my mother just didn’t like going out much. So most of my first films were watched at the Bradford Playhouse, an art house cinema which specialised in series of films with subtitles. Consequently in my teens I saw a lot of Polish avant garde, but nothing by Steven Spielberg. I’m not saying this to show off. It just was what it was.

This was when Depardieu was at his prime. He played figures like Olmo Dalcò or Georges Danton – characters who filled the screen and challenged the ruling order. Neither 1900, nor Danton (nor, later Depardieu’s masterpiece Germinal) had a happy ending, but they contained in their essence the feeling, not just that change was possible but that it was inevitable. In other words, the exact opposite of this film.

Der Geschmack der kleinen Dinge embraces the conventional, and all leads up to a complacent ending that reassures you that all is right with the world. Its the sort of film made by someone who’s spent too much time as a house guest of Vladimir Putin. But while it’s apt that Depardieu plays a washed out artist whose best is behind him, this is no Robert de Niro in Dirty Grandpa or Marlon Brando in the Island of Dr Moreau. Depardieu is not terrible, just disappointingly average.

Yes, there is nothing in the film which surprizes us, but there are plenty of bland films which are diverting enough. And maybe I put too much hope in an actor who hasn’t given a performance that I can remember this Century. Depardieu’s star shone bright, but I rather fear that it fizzled out a long time ago. And I find that very sad.

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