“Food is memories,” two young would-be lovers agree as they dine on veal and a collection of classically prepared French sauces along the shore of a river winding through a village so picturesque that you’ll feel you’ve spent your entire life living atop a garbage dump by comparison.
There’s no doubt that tastes and aromas can imprint powerful associations in our minds. So it’s a shame The Hundred-Foot Journey sacrifices so much of what might have made its flavor profile a unique and indelible experience in favor of pablum about the value of cross-cultural understanding.
When the Kadam family of Mumbai emigrates to quaint Saint Antonin-Noble-Val, somewhere in the French countryside, they open an Indian restaurant. This does not sit well with Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), the prideful proprietor of the celebrated Michelin-star establishment right across the street. She and the Kadam family patriarch (Om Puri) turn to open warfare, doing things like buying up the entire supply of the best ingredients at the village market and reporting code violations to the mayor in an attempt to run each other out of business.
Their early scenes of mischief make for pleasant bits of comedy, but unfortunately the conflict doesn’t last long. After Madame Mallory’s kitchen staff pushes things too far, resorting to xenophobic graffiti and setting the Kadams’ restaurant on fire, she has a sudden change of attitude. That’s when the movie shifts to focus on the story of Kadam son Hassan’s (Manish Dayal) rise to prominence as a chef.
Hassan is so gifted in the kitchen that his only stumbling block in ascending the culinary world is the pull of the beautiful French girl, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), he falls for and doesn’t want to leave behind. The lack of a counterweight to his ambition makes for a dull narrative. I’d have preferred director Lasse Hallström indulge in the schmaltz of something like his earlier film, Chocolat, to this flat story.
Plus the movie undercuts its own claim to value all cultural traditions. I found it disconcerting that while the film clearly wants us to laugh at Madame Mallory’s snooty attitude towards the Indian cuisine served at the Kadam family restaurant, it is only by pursuing classical training in Mallory’s kitchen that Hassan comes to be considered a success. His father is unconcerned about how his own restaurant will fare once Hassan jumps ship — the implication being that Indian food is simplistic and unsophisticated enough that any member of the family can manage it.
What aspires to be a touching story of love, family, and togetherness becomes instead nothing but a trifle. I expect it will be gone from my memories by tomorrow and not even a bite of pigeon with truffle sauce will re-summon it.