Mr. Castella (Jean-Pierre Bacri, the director's husband and co-writer) is a wealthy businessman whose life leaves little time for anything but work. This is just fine with his wife, Angelique (Christiane Millet), a snippy layabout who fancies herself an interior decorator despite her unbelievably awful taste. Castella is in the midst of business negotiations, and he has been forced to hire a bodyguard, Moreno (Gerard Lanvin), who now accompanies him and his chauffeur, Bruno (Alain Chabat), everywhere.
One night, Angelique drags Castella to see a performance of Racine's Berenice. He has trouble staying awake until he spots Clara (Anne Alvaro), the middle-aged actress playing the queen. Castella has, in fact, met her before; she has recently interviewed with him as an English tutor. In real life, his reaction to her was somewhere between disinterest and dislike; but suddenly, seeing her onstage, he is deeply moved by her performance, so moved that he falls in love with her.
He hires her as his tutor and tries desperately to insinuate himself into her life, intruding backstage and tagging along uninvited for drinks with the cast and crew. In comparison to this group of aesthetes, he is hopelessly gauche, constantly embarrassing himself . . . if he only knew enough to recognize his missteps. "You should do something with laughs," he advises the troupe's producer (Wladimir Yordanoff), who responds noncommittally that they are tackling Ibsen next. "Ah, well," Castella says, "much better. He's funny!"
As the theater people mock Castella, everyone's in on the joke but him. Even Bruno and Moreno, discreetly positioned nearby, can see what's going on, when they're not too busy making eyes at the bartender, Manie (played by Ms. Jaoui).
If we at first cringe at Castella's oafishness, we also cringe at the occasional cruelty of his mockers. But with time, most of the characters reveal themselves to be decent and flawed rather than in any way deserving of our contempt. In fact, it is Jaoui's attitude toward her characters that makes The Taste of Others seem quintessentially French.
While the filmmaker has mentioned screening numerous Woody Allen films during the preparation for The Taste of Others, one might just as easily compare her strategy to Jean Renoir. While no one is going to put the film on the same pedestal as Rules of the Game, the dual story lines certainly invoke shades of that classic.
Castella is something of an updated version of Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt -- the unthinking bourgeois whose life changes when he comes into contact with bohemia. In The Taste of Others, the transformation is less radical: The characters don't suddenly discover their true selves or start life over. As in the everyday world, they simply learn surprising little things about themselves and others: Some of these small revelations are not particularly happy, but most involve a greater appreciation of life.
The story moves at a relaxed pace, and it takes a little time to get the characters straight. It may be that the actors are well known enough in France that Jaoui was counting on audiences' familiarity with them -- the very slight confusion is not a big deal. In any case, those looking for a low-key, often amusing romantic drama will likely embrace Jaoui's film. It may be classically French, but only the least perceptive viewer will fail to recognize what is universal in the characters' behavior.