The 100 foot journey
Very appropriate, really, to be sitting in a cinema that stank like a fast-food restaurant when we saw this gastro-pic. (Is this a new genre I wonder?) So bad that the woman sitting next to Husband turned to him and said, ‘God the smell of that popcorn!’ – or was this just a chat up line and she didn’t see me? The spicy stir-fry odours, common in Singapore, mixed with cheesy tacos were much worse than the popcorn.
This is a nice little film. No, I am not damming it with faint praise, because it is a traditional feel-good movie where the twists and turns of the plot hold no surprises, just like the results of a Betty Crocker cake mix. It’s a tantalising premise: Indian family burned out of their restaurant in Mumbai seek their fortune in Europe. First to England and then, because living under the flight path is a singularly unattractive proposition, they meander to France in a beat-up old van until a breakdown lands them in the attractive village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val.
Papa (Om Puri) is convinced that his dead wife is telling him that this is the place to start again and lo and behold there is a failed restaurant for sale. The only snag is that it is opposite a one-Michelin star haute cuisine hostelry, owned by the haughty and humorless Madame Mallory, Helen Mirren at her supercilious best.
Soon Papa and his family of four are making the place into a vision of old Mumbai, much to the fury of Madame and her chef de cuisine, Jean-Pierre. Meanwhile Hassan (Manish Dayal), the talented young chef of the family, has been courting the lovely Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), their break-down angel and also a sous chef chez Madame, by picking ceps with her at dawn and teaching himself how to cook àLarousse. Perhaps that’s how foodies do their courting. Madame Mallory, on the other hand, exudes traditional French chauvinism, using every trick in the book to ruin her enemy’s chances of success. But in Papa, perhaps she has met her match…
Inevitably this becomes a clash of two cultures – French vs Indian – with all the ridiculous actions that neighborhood feuds entail: the ruses of buying out the market of specific products on a tit-for-tat basis, the noise pollution and planning complaints all resonate with scenes from neighbours from hell until local patriots take it all a step too far.
Lasse Hallstrom has put together an ensemble cast who together create a bit of magic – it’s all in the timing and the chemistry – and he has combined it with some picturesque cinematography from Linus Sandgren, which makes the latent Republicanism all the more odious. But somehow I suspect not unrealistic in rural France with the rising tide of the Le Pen right-wing.
Some have attempted to see this as a more serious film about tolerance and understanding; maybe that was the intention. It is, however, delivered with the lightest of touches and a dollop of arch comedy, so it’s hard to categorise this as a movie with a message. Sadly, what could have been a perfect film comes unstuck in the last third, which seems more a post-script than a continuation, like a PS post-it note, or too much extra icing on the cake. It may have formed part of the book from which the movie is adapted, but somehow it doesn’t quite work here, although it does deliver the ending that the audience probably requires.
For me the highlights of the film were the performances by Mirren and Puri; he, as the migrant father, reprising his role in East is East, and delivering a series of one-liners that had our audience shouting with laughter, and Mirren breaking new ground by taking on the part of a Frenchwoman – and a tartar at that. Mind you, if you have played the Queen, you can do just about anything! I was also charmed by the two young stars, Dayal and Le Bon, who add a fresh-faced innocence to the picture. So a film to go and enjoy, one that doesn’t tax the brain but gratifies one’s culinary senses with a never-ending series of delicious looking dishes and repartee. A feast for the eyes – if only one could taste all the dishes too!