A Discriminating Master; an Incriminated Servant

Bernard Rapp’s A

Matter of Taste ( Une Affaire de Goût ),

from a screenplay by Mr. Rapp and Gilles Taurand, based on the novel by

Philippe Balland, bears a curious resemblance in its

one-sided power struggle, in which one male manipulates another, to Joseph

Losey’s The Servant (1963). But

whereas in The Servant , Dirk

Bogarde’s malignant manservant is the victimizer of James Fox’s rich, young,

weak-willed employer, in A Matter of

Taste , the class alignment is reversed, making Bernard Giraudeau’s paranoid

industrialist the Svengali influence on Jean-Pierre Lorit’s handsome but

somewhat aimless waiter, who accepts a demeaning job as the industrialist’s

food-taster in exchange for a huge salary. Faust and

Mephistopheles, anyone?

In both A Matter of

Taste and The Servant , the

victim’s attractive girlfriend tries vainly to disrupt the process of

psychological seduction. Their failure in both instances leads to a hip

audience’s inference of homoeroticism at work. Mr. Rapp and Mr. Taurand are

less explicit about the potential deviance than Mr. Losey and Mr. Pinter. For

one thing, the characters in A Matter of

Taste are mirror images of each other, while the characters in The Servant -played by the dark-haired

Bogarde and the fair-haired Fox-are visual contrasts.

Indeed, there is something almost vampirish in the way

Frédéric Delamont, the industrialist, tries to suck out every last vestige of

his taster’s diminished ego to feed his own tortured psyche. It all starts

amiably enough with the taster, Nicolas Rivière, sampling Delamont’s food to

make sure there aren’t any traces of fish or cheese, two of the industrialist’s

many phobias. But it’s not enough for Delamont that Rivière simply monitor the

food-the taster must be conditioned to hate fish and cheese as much as Delamont

does. This involves employing a gourmet cook to feed luscious-looking fish and

cheese dishes to Rivière with a hidden emetic agent, causing the hapless taster

to upchuck a storm until he is permanently cured of his predilection for the


Delamont wants his

employee to in fact share his tastes. His reconditioning of Rivière extends to

clothes, cosmetics, savoir faire and cynical business practices. Rivière is

made to share Delamont’s contempt for an American client with an inexplicable

passion for Napa Valley wine. This modish Gallic joke ignores a recent wine-tasting contest in

which California wines fared surprisingly well in comparison with

their French counterparts.

The proceedings would become monotonously unpleasant if Mr.

Rapp and Mr. Taurand had not hit upon the clever stratagem of breaking up the

linear narrative of the book into flashback segments involving a murder (a plot

development that does not occur in the book), so that we know the ending of the

Delamont-Rivière relationship very soon after the beginning of the film. As

Rivière tells his story to a judge, a doctor and a psychiatrist, we find him

trying to explain how he submitted willingly to the humiliations imposed on him

for so long by his boss. A subtext emerges of people who imagine they can sell

out for a short time and emerge with their dignity and integrity intact as they

count their riches. Then again, it is much easier for a master to corrupt a servant

( A Matter of Taste ) than for a

servant to corrupt a master ( The Servant ).

Yet, by telling the story backwards and forwards as they do,

Mr. Rapp and Mr. Taurand make us focus on the why of the situation rather than

the what. Just as Delamont is conspicuously attracted to Rivière’s good looks,

Rivière is entranced by Delamont’s style in exercising his power over other

people. And we, too, become accomplices in Delamont’s ruthlessness, as long as

we know he will eventually get his comeuppance. It is hardly surprising that

the absolute power of the rich is something we not-so-rich moviegoers fantasize


It is not that Delamont himself is exactly charming, but

that the intelligently observed details of his lifestyle and obsessions keep us

hooked. The acting, the pacing, the mise

en scène of the film all combine to create a feeling of inexorability from

the first shot to the last. With a few brushstrokes, for example, the bohemian

values of Rivière’s girlfriend Béatrice (Florence Thomassin) are expressed

through her free spirit as a newsstand dealer. Yet she, too, is initially

corrupted by the prospect of her lover’s economic and social advancement.

Still, even though she becomes completely disenchanted with Delamont’s

influence on Rivière and is temporarily estranged from him, deep down she

remains loyal to her lover-all the way to the moment she pleads his case with

the chief magistrate, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, now shockingly altered by

age from the eternally youthful free spirit in the 60’s and 70’s film

rhapsodies of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. In this context, A Matter of Taste is clearly post– nouvelle vague , postmodern and more

laconically analytical than lushly romantic. See it, but leave your illusions

at home.

They Call Him O

Tim Blake Nelson’s O ,

from a screenplay by Brad Kaaya, based on William Shakespeare’s Othello , was reportedly held up for

release because of presumed parallels in its prep-school plot’s violence with

the real-life Columbine massacre. One can argue that Shakespeare was no

stranger to violence-and furthermore, that the Bard was nothing if not

politically incorrect by contemporary standards, and perhaps even by the

shadowy standards of his own time. One could write term papers, if one were so

inclined, with the theses that Shakespeare did not like people of color ( Othello ), Third World savages ( The Tempest ), Jews ( The Merchant of Venice ) or women ( King Lear , just for starters-and let’s not forget his shamelessly

nationalist image of Joan of Arc as a strumpet in one of his early chronicle

plays centered around Henry VI).

Still, I am bemused by the skittishness with which many of

my colleagues have confronted the latest violation of the long-held screen

prohibition against interracial coupling. O

centers around the frankly sensual romance between a white prep-school girl named Desi (Julia Stiles) and the title character, Odin

James (Mekhi Phifer), an African-American basketball recruit, apparently the

only member of his race on campus. Ms. Stiles traversed this taboo-breaking

road earlier this year in Thomas Carter’s Save

the Last Dance . There, she was the only white girl in an

all-African-American student body; here, she is dating the only

African-American student in an otherwise all-white Southern prep school.

But then, the Venice of

Shakespeare’s Othello was no less

sociologically improbable in its toleration of Desdemona’s liaison with a

popular Moorish general who had won victories for the city-state. The problem

with O is that, in trying to

establish equivalents to the characters in Shakespeare’s soaringly poetic

original, the dialogue remains earthbound, and the acting is curiously

distanced by the barriers set up by an architecturally “busy” mise en scène . As Bernard Shaw once

observed, if you take Shakespeare’s poetic genius out of his plays, you’re

often left with some moth-eaten dramatic contrivance. In some ways the least of

Shakespeare’s tragedies, Othello has

been denigrated as the tragedy of the handkerchief (changed to a scarf in O , but to

little avail). The clumsy mechanics of a fatally misplaced jealousy remain

obtrusive, though the film’s Hugo (Josh Hartnett), representing the play’s

Iago-a character lacking a backstory in both versions-remains the most

compelling character, though losing his cool many times over before the final

bloodbath. In the end, the Shakespearean ideas collapse on film because of the

youthful callowness of the characters. Yet I found O interesting, though never stirring.

On the subject of violent films: The long nightmare of the

demolished twin towers of the World Trade Center goes on and on as I type my

weekly movie column, and I cannot help observing, as some commentators already

have, that after decades of watching the most artful simulations of massive,

earthshaking explosions on the screen, when the real thing came along, it

looked almost like a low-tech video game with toy airplanes by comparison. Some

bang-bang terrorist movies have already had their release dates postponed, but

sooner or later, with all the money Hollywood has invested in the male juvenile

market for the sake of the sacred bottom line, the boom-boom epics will come

trickling out-but, I hope, with diminished impact at the box office. Yet it may

be too much to hope that movies are on the verge of entering a more civilized


A Discriminating Master; an Incriminated Servant