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Breaking Brakes and a Few Eggs
Written on 09/06/2014, film first viewed by author on 09/03/2014
Some legends, myths, and allegories suggest that it is beautiful music, a magic chord that soothes the beast, or pleases the angry god or goddess. In the case of The Hundred-Foot Journey, it is an omelet that finally defeats a tyrant.
In director Lasse Hallstrom’s latest film, adapted to the screen by Steven Knight from the novel by Richard C. Morias, a self-exiled Indian family roams across Europe in a kind of pilgrimage. Their goal is to find a new home where they can reestablish their business, a restaurant serving Indian cuisine. Eventually, the brakes in their car fail while crossing the border into France from Switzerland. In the nearby village, Papa (Om Puri) sets his eyes on an old restaurant, and so the family stays to reopen it as an Indian eatery, even with strong protest initially from within the family. As Papa boasts about the cooking talents of his son, Hassan (Manish Dayal), and as his skills become more evident, famous restaurant owner Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) and her ambitious sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), begin to take real notice. Soon, a culinary war erupts between the two establishments that just happen to be one hundred feet across the road from each other.
As a film mostly about a group of characters’ relationships with food and cooking, The Hundred-Foot Journey naturally makes observations of life by using food-related analogies. In this film, food is not just food. It’s a religion, a way to fight, a way to love, and a way to reminisce. Hassan is once told by his mother (Juhi Chawla) that “you cook to make ghosts”. This is an interesting parallel to the Hindu belief that life goes on after death through reincarnation. As dead plants and animals are cooked and eaten, they live on as the source of energy that propels the endeavors of life.
When it comes to the showdown between the two restaurants, not only is it a fight of food, but it is also an international fight, a war of two cultures steeped in their equally old and grand traditions. However, Hassan is smarter than to think that the only way to win is for one culture to crush another. He is of the generation that is becoming more connected, more globalized. So, he combines the cuisines, making a French-inspired omelet with the spices of India. He makes peace out of war, and it is the dish that wins over Madame Mallory, and opens doors for Hassan.
As Hassan climbs the ladder of culinary fame, his relationship with Marguerite fluxes between a romance and a rivalry. They win each other’s hearts through recipes and inspirations, but Marguerite cannot shake the fact that Hassan may be the better chef. In Paris, where Hassan is the toast of the culinary world, he is introduced to the science of cooking. Up until then, cooking had been a divine art, a passion. Though he is the adored wunderkind, Hassan’s job has become precise, cold, and distant. The tastes seem to become more manufactured, and less authentic. Only when Hassan (in probably the most touching part of the film) is offered real Indian food by a co-worker does he remember why he began cooking in the first place. In a tearful realization, he knows that cooking should be that religion his mother taught him, rather than the science of Paris.
The Hundred-Foot Journey has a well-rounded cast and great backdrops. It is constructed visually with some intriguing shots and well paced edits. In particular, the sequence in which both restaurants are “cooking off” in their respective kitchens is almost as intense as a classic sword fight. However, the film’s fairytale conclusions make the script teeter towards the dangerously unbelievable (and perhaps the source material is this way, too, though the author cannot truthfully judge as he has not read it). It is an optimistic notion to say that walls of prejudice can be torn down by good food alone or that a young man (who also happens to become instantly successful) can leave a woman he loves for a career and expect her to still be waiting for him when he returns. After all, the relationship between Hassan and Marguerite has already been written to feel a bit too much like a Romeo and Juliet cliché, so why turn the bittersweet situation around at all? It would have been a great chance to leave a shred of realism in a story where the young man at least gets everything else he could want. As in real life, both probably should have moved on. And, though it is another nice thought, the idea that Madame Mallory and Papa could speedily heal from the wounds of losing their spouses and attempt to woo each other is also sadly far-fetched.
The more honest message that should be taken from The Hundred-Foot Journey is that people should make the best of what they end up with, and thus get somewhere else, whether emotionally or geographically (or both). Papa said, “Brakes break for a reason”. Though he saw it as a divine intervention, that helped his family make a future in France, it could simply mean “life gives you lemons”. One takes the bad and tries to make it good, breaking a few eggs to make an omelet of eventual success.