Well, it’s affecting when it’s not being stereotypical. The most obvious problem with “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is that for a film that is supposedly tackling issues of xenophobia, it falls sometimes too easily into making the same generalizations. Take, for example, Helen Mirren’s character Madame Mallory, who is aghast that an Indian restaurant would open across the street from her Michelin star-earning classic French establishment. Eventually she warms to the idea, but do director Lasse Hallström (who also directed “Dear John”) or screenwriter Steven Knight, working off the novel by Richard C. Morais, ever actually show Mallory eating traditional Indian food? Never. How about asking the Indian family about their cooking techniques, about their methods, about their customs? Also never. Eventually she accepts the presence of them, but she doesn’t go out of her way to learn about them—and this is depicted as just fine.
In contrast, the Indian family—led by Mallory’s rival Papa (Om Puri), whose oldest son Hassan (Manish Dayal) is an amazing cook—works throughout the film to win over the French village, to tone down what is presented (without question) as Papa’s bombast and pride. We’re meant to admire the family’s determination and resiliency, but also be pleased by their eventual acceptance into the French village … once they become less Indian and assimilate to an obvious degree. “The Hundred-Foot Journey” tries to have it both ways, then—to commend the natively French Mallory for befriending the Indians despite their cultural differences, but also to ease away those very same cultural differences in a one-sided exchange where the Indians give in but the French don’t—and it feels like the film is asking social questions that it can’t really answer.
Where “The Hundred-Foot Journey” excels, though, is in its characters, all of whom are likable and relatable even when they’re plotting and scheming and fighting each other. The film mostly takes place in a French town, where the Kadam family resettles after receiving asylum in Europe. They left India tragically, and all they really have is each other—which manifests in how they communicate, how they interact as a family, how they cook, how they eat. Patriarch Papa decides to open a restaurant, continuing the profession they had back in India, and son Hassan is ready to lead the kitchen, to introduce new diners to the flavors of cardamom and nutmeg and spice. What else do they have left?
There are only two complications, really: Madame Mallory at the award-winning French restaurant across the street, literally 100 feet away, who objects to the restaurant’s décor and music and menu and does everything she can to shut them down, and kind Frenchwoman Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), a sous chef at Mallory’s restaurant who catches Hassan’s eye. At first, it’s war between the two restaurants, as Mallory and Papa each try to outsmart each other. But simultaneously, Hassan and Marguerite are befriending each other, growing closer together, once Hassan decides that he wants to learn French technique and become more classically trained. How that affects his dynamic with Marguerite, and then with Mallory, and then with his father is how the rest of “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is structured, and it serves as an effective microcosm of the first-generation immigrant experience.
There are certainly things here that don’t ring true, like the way unlikely romantic subplots develop between key characters toward the end of the film, but there is an overflow of emotionally effective moments before that. Hassan reading the French cookbooks Marguerite gave him and hearing the text in her voice—a comfortably recognizable sign of falling in love. Papa standing outside his restaurant in a chic Western suit, trying to lure in customers, only to realize that dressing as stereotypically as possible (gold headdress, tunic, and everything) is the only way to attract them; it’s a moment of quiet heartbreak. And toward the end, when we see Hassan eating a seemingly simple meal after nearly an hour of only seeing him create increasingly complicated food for others—it’s a tear-jerking moment of self-realization for the character, and it works excellently.
So what feels off about “The Hundred-Foot Journey”? Although the food is often beautiful to look at, it’s a stand-in for other things, and so there’s a fundamental disconnect here for the viewer. This is ostensibly a movie about delicious cooking, but you won’t leave understanding anything extremely detailed or insightful about French or Indian cuisine; French food has small portions and Indian food is spicy is basically the extent of it. What you will leave with are those questions about your soul and your memories and how food reflects who you are, and that’s really what “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is about, anyway. Too bad for the film that it falls into the very cultural biases it’s trying to fight.
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