Friday, November 20, 2009

The Taste of Others (Le goût des autres ) -- the power of art

Director: Agnès Jaoui, 2000.

What value does art have in our lives? Can it bring transformation? Is it an acquired taste? Actor-writer Jaoui puts the spotlight on art and love in her directorial debut. This is a slow French comedy of sex, good taste and bad manners. What story there is centers on three men and three women whose lives intersect. These interactions form the crucible for their character development.

Early in the film we see Castella (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a wealthy industrialist who owns a steel plant in Rouen. He is being driven back from a lunch engagement by his driver Bruno (Alain Chabat, I Do). He slowly but vacantly gazes out of the window, bored, seeing nothing. Looking, he does not see.

This reminds us of the parables Jesus told. These stories had important messages to those who heard and understood. But, when his dull disciples asked why he spoke this way, Jesus said, "This is why I speak to them in parables: 'Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand' " (Matt. 13:13). How often do we drift through life, looking but not really seeing. Just like Castella, our minds are elsewhere. We are blind people walking.

When Castella and his wife Angélique (Christiane Millet) later go to the theater, he is once again bored, wishing to be elsewhere. He is a rich philistine, not appreciating the finer things in life. But his eye is caught by Clara (Anne Alvaro), the lead actress in the Greek tragedy and he gazes at her with rapt attention. Somehow, his artless heart has become alive to what is before him. She was the woman he failed to hire as an English teacher. Recognition dawns and so does the spark of life.

If Castella and Clara are the main characters who will change, Angélique and Bruno form a pair of naive foils. He is seemingly faithful to his fiancee, abroad and distant. But his heart is fickle and infidelity becomes a foregone conclusion. She is married but going through the motions. In one scene she and Castella are gazing at the TV engaged with the show but not really with other. Both Angélique and Bruno seem to take for granted what is apparently theirs in the relationships they are in. Yet for both, their partners awake to the taste of others that leaves them surprised and shaken. Angélique's retreat is her interior decorating hobby, a form of art, while Bruno's is his attempt at flute playing.

And then there are Manie (Jaoui) and Franck (Gérard Lanvin). She is a pretty barmaid who deals hash for a living. He is Castella's temporary bodyguard. Both have a cynical approach to love and relationships: casual sex is their choice. He boasts of his hundreds of conquests to the naive Bruno. She tells Franck that she approaches sex like a man: no love just physical union. But by the time the movie is over, they have found in each other someone so much like themselves that they are ready to change.

Manie and Franck represent the mindset and lifestyle of so many today. Sex is simply a form of pleasure to be enjoyed with a person whose name we might never know or forget within days. Partner after partner, faces disappear into the pack. But is this really beneficial or is it simply a taste of others that damages our dignity and puts another brick in our barricade? Both Manie and Franck seem to have a fear of intimacy that they hide behind the physical act of coupling. Surely this is not what God intended when he made man and woman? No, sex is intended to be a loving and intimate act that opens us up to the other, revealing while bringing pleasure. Sex is meant to be enjoyed within the realm of marriage, one man with one woman, committed to one another (Gen. 2:25; Heb. 13:4). Although Manie and Franck find fulfillment in one another, it has taken them y4ars and countless individuals to get there.

Which brings us back to Castella and Clara. After he has gazed upon the beauty of her acting, he wants more. Castella becomes like a puppy in love, wanting to spend time with her, though he is clueless among her bohemian artist friends. She wants little to do with him, but this does not stop him. As he hangs with her, he begins to see art. His eyes are open as if for the first time. She, in turn, is 40 and wants love but cannot find it from the men around her. She cannot see what is in front of her face: Castella. Her preconceptions keep her closed off to this businessman.

Art can have a transformative effect. Just like in this film, it can open our eyes to see things we never dreamed of, to experiences we never felt before. Even if we are not particularly gifted artistically, we can still appreciate what others have created or their performances. Like Castella, I am not an artist yet I have in my family a fine fabric artist and a singing-dancing actrss. I am learning to taske and savor the power of art.

Art stems from God. He created humanity in his image (Gen. 1:26) and as such we have an innate ability to create and express ourselves. There are numerous forms of art, including painting, theater, film, music, quilting. All offer a way of self-expression. If art is fine, it will transcend and inspire, it will open us up to new potentialities. It adds beauty to lives that otherwise may be insipid and dull. And as art points us to beauty we are drawn back to the Artist who made it all possible, the Lord. He is beautiful (Psa. 27:4) and beauty itself.

Art may transform us, turning us from philistines to connoisseurs. But it is the Artist, Jesus, who can transform us truly from within. He can remake us as beautiful works of art. But we must let him. We must allow him to paint on the canvas of our lives. When we do that we experience the beauty of new life (2 Cor. 5:17).

As The Taste of Others closes, Castello gazes on Clara performing beautifully, and she gazes back. Both have been changed. And Bruno plays the theme from Edith Piaf's great song, "Je ne regrette rien" (I regret nothing). His musical art has transformed him, leaving him with no regrets. Art can truly do that.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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