Blame the Mob
by ELIZABETH BARBEE
The Hundred-Foot Journey
dir. Lasse Hallstrom
I ate a microwavable chicken fried steak, several under baked cookies, and a couple handfuls of reduced fat Cheez-Its while watching The Hundred-Foot Journey. My meal felt ironic and a little perverse, because this movie is a two hour ode to good food.
It opens in Mumbai, where Hassan’s family has owned a popular restaurant for generations. His mother, the head of the kitchen, is superstitious and takes a mystical approach to cooking. She says obnoxious, new-agey things like, “To cook you must kill. You cook to make ghosts.” While this sentiment leaves me squeamish, it only whets Hassan’s appetite. He learns to prepare dishes using curry, cardamom, and sea urchin. He develops a fetishistic relationship with the last ingredient, one that haunts him throughout the film.
When he is in his early-twenties and terribly handsome, the restaurant, and the sea urchins contained within it, is destroyed by an angry, fire-wielding mob. The source of the rabble’s wrath is unclear even to the protagonist. “There was an election of some kind,” Hassan offers in way of explanation. “And there was a winner, and there was a loser.” He leaves it at that. Everyone escapes the flames but his mother, and even she lives on in spirit. When Hassan’s father later mutters to himself in Hindi, it doesn’t mean we need to turn up the volume (I tried that) it means he’s communing with his dead wife.
Her influence leads the family to make a series of terrible decisions. They move to England and then France, where they purchase an abandoned building just a hundred feet away from Helen Mirren. She plays Madame Mallory, a raging bitch and the proprietor of a Michelin starred restaurant that operates more like a boarding school. All the chefs seem to live on site, and their artistic impulses are frequently stifled by their rigidly traditional boss.
Mirren makes a convincing French woman. Her accent slips at times, but she has the stereotypes down. She walks with her nose stuck in the air, wears lots of scarves, and believes no other culture is worthy of existing.
When Hassan’s father decides to convert the abandoned building into an Indian restaurant, she is at equal turns disgusted and threatened. Why she thinks people craving quiche will suddenly decide they’re in the mood for Tikka Masala is beyond me, but I don’t have a fickle palate.
Her fear of losing business turns out to be baseless (obviously). Maison Mumbai is empty the night of its opening, and Hassan’s family essentially pimps themselves out to get customers. The father changes into his most elaborate turban and instructs his daughter to stand on the side of the road so passing cars can see how pretty she looks in her sari. You can hear Edward Said groan in the background. This isn’t the only instance of Orientalism in the film, not by a long shot. Though the French characters usually walk in silence, sitars follow Hassan’s family everywhere they go.
The movie is rated PG, but it is highly sensual. Every bite (and there are lots of bites) is accompanied by an orgasmic sigh. Women’s mouths are a camera favorite. Hassan falls in love with one of Madame Mallory’s employees, a French girl named Marguerite, presumably because she picks her own mushrooms and chews with her eyes closed. Marguerite is frustratingly coquettish. She rejects Hassan’s advances, but gifts him suggestive recipes. “Mix until silky to the touch,” one instructs. “Pour into a pan. Spread your cherries over the top and bake until the skewer inserted into the batter comes out clean.”
Though this is clearly a metaphor for sex, she doesn’t let Hassan touch her until he starts wearing blazers and working at a Parisian restaurant that is more science lab than brasserie. The blazers are hot, as is the new gig, but Hassan was a babe from day one. I suspect Marguerite has some deep seeded childhood issues that prevent her from accepting love. What she lacks in openness she makes up for in Anthropologie dresses. Practically every scene features a new one: some plaid, some lace – all ethereal, gorgeous, and much more expensive than they appear.
It’s no surprise this movie was produced by Oprah Winfrey. Her aesthetic is everywhere. I’m familiar with Oprah’s taste, because my mom subscribes to her magazine, which I flip through every time I visit. The pages are always filled with brightly colored images and stories that are inspiring without being controversial. The Hundred-Foot Journey is similarly luminous and nonthreatening.
I had an ex-boyfriend who refused to watch movies unless they were rated PG-13 or higher. He said sex and violence contributed significantly to his enjoyment of a film. I was initially horrified by this reveal. “What kind of freak am I dating,” I thought. But when I ran through the list of the movies I love most, they were all a little scandalous, a little gritty. There is something unsettling about a movie for adults that ignores, or in this case talks around, some of the most important facets of adulthood. The Hundred-Foot Journey wasn’t bad, but I might have enjoyed it more if an F bomb had been dropped or Marguerite and Hassan had consummated their love. That’s just the kind of depraved individual I am.
Elizabeth Barbee is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Dallas. She last wrote in these pages about an apartment. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
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