Monday, September 1, 2014


It has been a very long time since I intensely disliked a film that I was so thoroughly engaged and entertained by. I cried (laughed a little) all through it, but I was exhausted from an eight hour bus and train journey from Quebec the day before so I would have cried at the drop of a hat. By the end of the film, tear stained and enraptured by the irritation of incessant and predictable romantic play, I almost wished I had saved the thirteen dollars and just dropped my hat and wept.

And the business class boozy train journey included a lovely conversation with a woman who shared her assessment of Canadian regional tastes based on the kind of drink we order on trains. I ordered rum and coke, white wine, and then a shot of Baileys as fond homage to my white trash heritage. She ordered scotch, wine, and port - and had just seen the Faberge exhibit in Montreal. So I was feeling a bit critical of the decorative, culinary and libational arts.

Similar to the post-colonial colonialisms of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Hundred Foot Journey is a charming, romantic comedy about rampant xenophobia, marked by a particularly ugly and violent hate crime part way through. From a meta-theatrical point of view one might entertain the casual desire to examine the cinematic politics of casting a famous British actress as a French woman in possession of a very uneven accent - a French woman whose race politics make an about face after she has consciously taken part in the same forms of cultural xenophobia as some of the townsfolk.

By dismissing a young French man for similar hate crimes the character becomes a sympathetic maternal force by default. By the end of the film it isn’t too difficult to tell what she prizes more, a Michelin star or a Michelin award winning man. She needs and wants both and does everything she can to both lose and regain their attentions. The Hundred Foot Journey becomes a parody of culinary and cultural traditions and makes high-end French cuisine look like decorative appetizers alongside the more lavish Indian dishes. And then of course fusion, the ever-popular contemporary form of mixed cuisine, provides for a metaphoric grand narrative that ultimately makes all of the people happy all of the time.

Helen Mirren is always gorgeous and mesmerizing in her roles. It is hard to take your eyes off of her during this two-hour culinary spectacle. But when she speaks her French is crisp and strained, if not somewhat convincing at times - but at other times she is just Helen, and the British sounds become embarrassing as they seep through, providing an unpleasant reminder that Catherine Deneuve would have been far more convincing in the part. Om Puri, as Mirren’s “almost boyfriend” rises above the material at hand and gives a very strong performance as the self-willed paternal force who brings the maternal origins of his family’s journey full circle, and honours tradition as he embraces change.
My favorite romantic narrative was the movement from the village to Paris, where the prized young chef gets a new suave hairdo and grows a bit of light sexy facial hair. My reading of this fashion move pushes all culinary interests to the side and tells me that the beautiful young female chef had to send her male competitor to the city in order to pretty himself up before she could have carnal relations with him in the kitchen. But I am being ridiculous about the sublime here and know in my heart of hearts that true love is blind when it comes to physical attractiveness, tra la. The young chef comes back to his kitchen collaborator looking sleek, scruffy, debonair and irresistible all at once - when he had begun the film as a wide-eyed, beautiful boy aspiring to the heights of cooking genius that his mother has instilled in him. Damn!!! If Disney, Oprah, and Spielberg hadn’t made the film we might have been treated to some fabulous fusion sex and the dishes would have been way dishier.

The acting is lovely, the scenery is divine, and the empty country road between the two restaurants is harrowing in its emptiness as couples nonchalantly wander across a hundred foot stretch of cultural mayhem and make one wonder whether a Stephen King version with a ghost driven monster truck filled with croissants and lentils might have made the opening line of the film a little richer and less simplified - “We cook to make ghosts.” Releasing the spirits of food, cultural difference, and romantic intrigue becomes a garden of earthly delights, but unlike the famous painting by Hieronymus Bosch, these delights lack the relentless presence of hell on earth. There is hell, of course, but it is all so Disney’fied. So go see it. Like me, you may laugh, cry and crave South Asian cuisine all through it.

                        And the limp asparagus scene was priceless.

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