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HOT DOCS 2021

Review: The Taste of Desire

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- Willemiek Kluijfhout's documentary is ostensibly about oysters and desire, but reaches much deeper and darker places than expected

Review: The Taste of Desire

Dutch filmmaker Willemiek Kluijfhout has made more than one documentary about food, and her debut effort, Mussels in Love [+see also:
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, opened the Berlinale's Culinary Cinema section in 2013. Her latest outing, The Taste of Desire, which has world-premiered at Hot Docs, deals with oysters. But it goes beyond expectations, delivering an almost philosophical piece in place of a mouth-watering, sexy, glamorous picture.

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This is not to say that this aspect is missing. Oysters are associated with sex, sensitivity, luxury, unattainability and, of course, desire, and Kluijfhout explores these issues but also delves more deeply into darker places through the intertwined stories of five characters whose lives are connected to these sea organisms in different ways.

A young Swedish former model gave up her career and started oyster diving. A French chef renounced his three Michelin stars when he realised that it was not bringing him happiness. A British psychoanalyst, ill with terminal cancer, wants to finish his book about oysters ("the best book about oysters") before he dies. A New York burlesque dancer's grand entrance is out of a giant oyster, and the whole act is based on it. And a Japanese pearl maker is still looking for direction in life, even though she seems to be on the right track: we learn from her that only 0.5% of pearls come out perfectly round. What she is interested in are the imperfections, which are much more easily and naturally related to real life.

For a film about such a sensual, tactile topic, The Taste of Desire is pretty cerebral. The interviews with the protagonists are delivered in a voice-over against footage of them doing their work or going about their daily chores, and the film gets fairly dark due to their often-troubled pasts. The chef was inspired to go into his profession, and indeed to follow his very philosophy of life, after an attempted murder that he barely survived. The diver had serious psychological issues as a teenager, including anorexia and suicidal tendencies, and the psychoanalyst provides us with the most profound thoughts of all, fitting for a person aware of his imminent demise.

This approach is counterbalanced by a voice-over "belonging to desire". A soft, sexy, often seductive female voice speaks about its contradictory nature in the first person, and it is easy to connect this ambiguity with the oyster itself: rough on the outside, silky on the inside, with a changing gender. Finally, several detail shots of the skins of some of the protagonists complete the circle.

Filmed elegantly by Remko Schnorr, edited by Saskia Kievits in a rhythm that follows the emotional arc of the film, and set to the cool and unobtrusive score by Tuur Florizoone, The Taste of Desire will make you crave oysters, it might also turn you on at certain moments, and will definitely remind you that life is there to be celebrated. But it is even more likely to make you reflect on your own choices and views of the world, and as such, it may easily switch your mood to a light melancholy.

The Taste of Desire is a co-production by Amsterdam-based Halal and Belgium's Cassette for Timescapes. Rise and Shine has the international rights.

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