by Mark Woodhouse
Rated PG. Starring Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal. Directed by Lasse Hallström.
In the red, white and blue corner is classic, cultured French cuisine. In the orange, white and green corner is spicy, rich Indian curries. They face off a mere hundred feet from each other. The French side has the home-ground advantage, but the Indian side has a spectacularly gifted chef in their ranks. The scene is set for a delicious battle!
Displaced from their home in India, the Kadam family have travelled to Europe to open a restaurant and build a new life. England’s vegetables had no soul, so they settle (or, more specifically, crash) in the southern French village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. Hassan Kadam (Dayal) is son and ‘cook’, and has a serious passion for all things food. He gets it in a way no one else seems to. But the family set up their Indian restaurant across the road from Madame Mallory’s (Mirren) Michelin-starred French restaurant, and she is not at all pleased.
What drives the story is Hassan and his love for a) Indian and French food (a strange mix), and b) Madame Mallory’s Sou Chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). There’s some flirting, and it seems like their love of food is bringing them together until Hassan’s prodigious talent quickly gives rise to a tense rivalry! The drama!
The food serves as a metaphor for the clash of western and eastern cultures. The French cuisine is all class, refined, sophisticated. The Indian cuisine is colourful, full of flavour and spice (“don’t sprinkle it around, spoon it in!”). The French restaurant is in an elegant, centuries-old house. The Indian restaurant has a garish ‘Taj Mahal’ type plywood front affixed to it. Madame Mallory wears graceful dresses and immaculate make-up. Papa Kadam (Puri) dons his turban for the grand opening of his restaurant and blasts Bollywood music as loud as he can.
In fact, this relationship between Madame Mallory and Papa is the highlight for me. They’re two people with very different experiences of life, and they’re both set in their ways. They both continually petition (harass) the town Mayor (who is perpetually eating), trying to get their own way. The tension builds into a wonderful dramatic montage of chefs chopping meat and vegetables with increasing intensity and ever-more-deadly stares.
The big challenge for the film was somehow getting the viewers to experience the food. It’s certainly a difficult task when we can neither taste nor smell it! All the slo-mo smelling and tasting and eye-closed lip-pursing can only get us so far without engaging our other senses. I think the filmmakers have used colour and sound quite well to substitute for taste and smell, but it’s never going to be quite the same.
I thought the plot was actually fairly shallow and predictable. There was a great opportunity to explore the racial tension, particularly the drama that parallels the Kadam family’s reason for leaving India. Sadly, there’s no room for it in the film. It leaves questions and issues unaddressed, but I can see why the filmmakers made the decision; going down that road would have given us a much darker film. As it is, the drama is focused on the food and the relationships centred around it, and it’s a lot lighter for it.
It’s the food that shows us the divisions, but it’s also the food that serves as the centre of reconciliation. The food brings people together, brings families together, brings eastern and western cultures together.
It’s the same picture we see in the Bible. In Matthew 8, Jesus says:
“I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven”.
What a great picture of reconciliation this is! This movie shows us a glimpse of heaven, where people will eat together united not by food, but by Jesus.
The movie also got me thinking about all the times Jesus ate with people in the gospels. He didn’t just eat with his friends, but with all sorts of people! It got me wondering about how often I share a table with people different to me (like I will in heaven!).
The Hundred-Foot Journey is a good film. It wants us to feel good (and hungry, though I’m told that doesn’t count as an ‘emotion’), and it succeeds! I was slightly disappointed by the lack of depth, but it didn’t really detract from the overall feel of the film. This film…*closes eyes, breathes in the aroma deeply, purses lips*… makes me long for a taste of heaven. I’m giving it 4 out of 5 stars.
The Hundred-Foot Journey will be released in the US on August 8th, in Australia on August 14th, and in the UK on September 5th.