What with glossy gourmet magazines, online recipes and the Cooking Channel, food porn is getting to be as difficult to avoid these days as…well, regular porn. It shows up on film a lot as well; Jon Favreau’s recent Chef is but the latest in a long list of visual immersions in the carnal joy of cooking and eating, some of them quite memorable. Like Water for Chocolate, Eat Drink Man Woman, Ratatouille and especially the “Japanese noodle Western” Tampopo are my favorites in this genre. But since they tend to run at least an hour-and-a-half in length, movies about food usually turn out to be at least as much about something else: romance, sex, mortality, family, class, crime.
That is certainly the case with Lasse Hallström’s latest outing, The Hundred-Foot Journey. Like his 2000 film Chocolat, it’s a gentle fable about social intolerance set in a small French town that’s set in its ways. Instead of the introduction of decadent sweets during Lent, the literal and metaphorical agent for change in the new film is spicy Indian cuisine. And instead of rigid Catholicism, the villainous force in The Hundred-Foot Journey is something a bit more timely in 21st-century Europe: prejudice against brown-complected immigrants.
We first meet the Kadam clan when the handsome protagonist Hassan is a young boy, learning the not-so-subtle mysteries of Indian cooking in the family restaurant from his mother. But a riot following a local election results in the burning of the building and Mama Kadam’s death. So Papa (Om Puri) decides to leave Mumbai and set up shop somewhere in Europe. After a false start in England, whose rainy climate proves inhospitable to the outdoor kitchens that they favor, Papa Kadam piles his family into a rickety station wagon and starts wandering the continent seeking a new home, guided only by whispered conversations with the spirit of Mama.
The vehicle breaks down on the outskirts of a picturesque subalpine village in the south of France, and the family is rescued by Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), a sous chef in the town’s only restaurant, Le Saule Pleurer. Under the imperious control of embittered widow Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), that establishment is the proud recipient of a single Michelin star and serves only traditional French haute cuisine. When Papa Kadam decides that fate and his wife’s ghost have decreed that he must turn the ruin of another restaurant directly across the street into a palace of Subcontinental cooking called Maison Mumbai, and her patrons are suddenly confronted with loud music, bright colors and spicy odors, Madame Mallory determines to put them out of business at once.
Though her broad, on-again, off-again Gallic accent is a bit distracting, Mirren is always a joy to watch, and her schemes to thwart the Kadams by such means as spying on their menus and buying up every speck of the necessary ingredients in the local greenmarket give the veteran actress an unusual chance to flex a bit of bad-guy muscle. The culinary war that escalates between her and the affable Papa is delivered with an amusing tone, until one of her chefs with connections among the town’s most right-wing, anti-immigrant residents takes things too far. An ugly incident forces Madame Mallory to do a bit of soul-searching, and Hassan (Manish Dayal) – the prodigy chef of the Kadam clan, whose most precious possession is a treasure chest of Indian spices left him by his mother – to make some hard decisions about his career path that will take a toll on both his family and his budding romance with Marguerite.