Being the worst cook you could ever imagine, I seem to have a soft spot for cooking/culinary/chef films, if only because the magic of food preparation for someone like me is beyond fascinating on more levels than I can explain. No Reservations, Chocolat, Julie & Julia, Ratotouile, not to mention the recently released Chef – I can’t help loving them all.
Of course I couldn’t walk past The Hundred-Foot Journey. Brought to you by Lasse Hallstrom, the director of Chocolat, and based on Richard C. Morais’ 2010 novel, it stars Helen Mirren and Om Puri, as well as Manish Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon, among others. Quite a constellation, if you ask me. Then again – did someone say food?
The Hundred-Foot Journey is a sweet and fascinating story of the Kadam family that was forced to flee India after the uprising in Mumbai, seeking for a more peaceful life in Europe. England doesn’t quite work out for them but when their car breaks down during their trip across France, Papa (Om Puri) takes it as a sign and decides to start a new life in a small French village in the middle of nowhere. To support his family, he buys an abandoned house in order to turn it into a traditional Indian restaurant, just like the one they had back home. Of course he plans to open it right across the street from Le Saule Pleureur, a Michelin-starred establishment serving the best dishes of French cuisine belonging to Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) who declares a war against the loud and colorful newcomers.
Nothing is below her – from buying half of the market to sabotage the opening nights of Maison Mumbai to basically blackmailing the mayor – who turned out being a fan of Indian cuisine – so that he’d close them. Everything changes, however, when Madame Mallory’s chef crosses the line and sets the Kadam house on fire, almost making the family go through the exact same nightmare they had to deal with in India. Even Madame is not that low, especially after she finds out that Hassan burned himself badly, trying to put down the fire.
A shaky peace, or at least some kind of tolerance is finally established, but then things get complicated when Hassan, having heard from Marguerite that instead of interviewing the cooks, Madame Mallory makes them make her an omelet goes and does just that – he makes the best omelet, and even she can’t deny that he is truly gifted. Which leads to her offering Hassan a job, much to his father’s disapproval. Which he accepts, MUCH TO HIS FATHER’S DISAPPROVAL. Which essentially leads to Madame Mallory’s restaurant getting the second Michelin star and Hassan waking up the next day to a bunch of invitations and job offers from the best restaurants in Paris. Which, oddly enough, makes him realize that it isn’t what he was dreaming about. Fancy restaurants and a big city don’t make up for good-natured laughs and family. So he packs up and moves back home to devote his life to something that makes him really happy.
If we learned anything in the last, I don’t know, ten decades, it’s that putting Helen Mirren on screen can never be a mistake. Over the years we witnessed her transformation from a passionate seductress to a glum detective to a pursed-lipped royalty with her chin held high enough to earn her an honest to God Oscar. In The Hundred-Foot Journey, produced by Steven Spielberg and, believe it or not, Oprah Whinfrey herself, we get to witness the backwards transformations as Mirren’s character goes from being a stone-faced ice queen to a delightful and romantic hostess as she opens her heart and mind to the world around her. Minus the Benjamin Button age thing, of course. Next to her, Om Puri does an equally excellent job as he learn to accept his son’s choices even though acceptance does not necessarily mean approval. Not at first, at least. Playing off of Miren’s arrogance, he proves being her fair opponent in the battle for hears and taste buds of their intrigued clientelle.
In the background, the similar conflict unfolds between Hassan and Marguerite who feels betrayed when Madame Mallory offers him to join her team in pursuit of a much desired second Michelin star instead of choosing her, the sous chef, for the position, her friendly demeanor changing to the one of a slow-burning hostility as she – inaudibly but quite visually – curses herself for basically handing Hassan all the cards.
What the film fails to convey is Hassan’s unspoken dialogue with food that one can pick up from the pages of the book but that seems to be only brushed upon in the film. Hallstrom starts moving in the right direction in the beginning of the movie but soon steps away from this quite significant detail and focuses on other things instead. Remember how in Ratatouille Remy could basically feel the food and its ingredients with everything that he was? I wish we could get the exact same impression from Manish Dayal’s performance.
Another aspect that seems to be there but not quite is the romantic relationship between Hassan and Marguerite, although I blame this particular issue entirely on the brilliance and Puri’s and Mirren’s performances that make the sexual and work tension between the younger characters seem a lot less significant. We haven’t spent enough time with either Hassan or Marguerite – together or separately – to be fully invested in ‘will they/won’t they’ when so many other things are at stake.
Set in France and revolving around equally stubborn Indian and French, the clash-culture dramedy may as well take place anywhere else and still carry through the same message about acceptance and peaceful coexistence we all should make better effort at focusing on. After all, there is no such thing as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to being decent human beings to one another. The Hundred-Foot Journey is a story about taking chances and following your dreams and listening to your heart even when the whole world is against you.
Unlike recently released Chef that might make you want to buy a food truck and have a cross country road trip while listening to the hot Latin tunes bellowing out of the speakers for everyone to enjoy, The Hundred-Foot Journey is akin a soft flannel pajama you’d chose to spend a rainy Friday night in. It can easily be compared to comfort food and candle-light and a much needed reassurance that everything will be okay in the world.