Trailer: The Hundred Foot Journey
The Kadam family moves from India to a small village in the south of France where they open a restaurant, causing trouble with the local top chef, Madame Mallory.PT2M0S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-3d7pe 620 349 August 6, 2014
Helen Mirren looks down at the pencil skirt, cashmere cardigan and loosely knotted sheer scarf that together have turned her into the impeccably soignee Madame Mallory and gives a small sigh. “You know, when you look at French women – not so much now, but certainly 20 years ago – there is a French style that, as an English person, you would look at and think, ‘Why can’t I look like that? Why am I always such a mess?'”
Of course, Dame Helen is one of the most elegant women alive, but we let that pass. “You know, I’m still like that. I came here and Pierre-Yves [Gayraud], our costume designer, put these clothes on me. I looked at myself in the mirror and there was this woman looking back – I said, ‘Oh my God, I look French! I can’t believe it!’”
Food porn: Helen Mirren stars as Madame Mallory in The Hundred-Foot Journey.
We are on the Paris set for The Hundred-Foot Journey, an adaptation by the celebrated screenwriter Steven Knight of the popular novel by Richard C. Morais about clashing cultures and cuisines. Everything seems to be going swimmingly, judging by the laden snack plate that appears as soon as the journalists get off the bus; you can feel immediately that this is a happy set. At the helm is Lasse Hallstrom, back on Chocolat territory.
The great Indian actor Om Puri plays the widowed patriarch of an Indian family whose car breaks down in the French village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, home of a Michelin-starred restaurant called Le Saule Pleureur (the Weeping Willow). It is the ‘50s, a less mobile time. Papa decides that the family should stop right there, take over a village house and turn it into an Indian kitchen.
Madame Mallory, also widowed, is the Weeping Willow’s patronne, a French kitchen supremacist with a burning ambition to earn her restaurant another star. The sight of the new Maison Mumbai, complete with a gilded gateway resembling a Hindu temple, appals her: there goes the banlieue, one could say, along with any chance of seducing the Michelin inspectors with their village’s unsullied heritage. Papa’s culinarily gifted son Hassan (Manish Dayal) and Madame Mallory’s delicious sous-chef Marguerite (Charlotte le Bon) are far less hidebound, however; they discover a mutual interest in each other’s herbs and spices, which leads to some happy mushrooming trips in the woods.
Culture clash: Papa (Om Puri, centre) and Hassan (Manish Dayal) shopping for food.
Those scenes were shot in the south of France; in the Paris studio, the interior of the Weeping Willow has been built as if it were a real restaurant, with four walls around every room and a genuine boeuf bourguignon bubbling on one of the industrial hobs, bowls of bay leaves and garlic and a tray of butterfly-cut chicken breasts ready to go into the oven. All the food in the movie is real. "Faking it would be more complicated, I think," says director Hallstrom.
In another part of the building is a real kitchen where the food is prepared by real French chefs. You can tell they’re real because the one now expertly blanching a cabbage has his lunch on the go at the same time. It’s a chocolate bar of a particularly horrible kind – the cheapest chocolate, I suspect, that you can legally sell in France. Right in front of him are to-die-for strawberry tarts, which they seem to have produced just for the fun of it. We eat them.
The cooks had given three or four classes in cooking to each of the actors but, as one of them says dismissively, “actors get tired”. Dayal, they acknowledge grudgingly, had learned to fillet fish adequately. We find Dayal emerging with Le Bon from the restaurant set. “I’ve got flour in my fingernails,” he points out proudly. He sounds as Indian as Puri when he’s performing – he says his parents are Gujarati – but his real voice is pure Californian.
How is his cooking coming along? “I make a few things really good – I can make a good pizza.” Not that he makes his own dough; he just puts the sauce and cheese on top of industrial discs. “So difficult!” mocks Le Bon; she is French-Canadian and a vegetarian. Dayal rises to the bait. “She deboned veal during pre-production,” he crows, with a certain degree of friendly malice. “Yes,” responds Le Bon, “and I was crying inside.”
Hallstrom meets us at the provincial dining table in the fictional kitchen. He is a vegan and is thus resigned to being unable to eat daily leftovers with the rest of the crew; there was a stuffed pigeon, apparently, that is now a set legend. It is his second foodie film made in France, the first being Chocolat with Juliette Binoche in 2000. I can’t say I have been a massive fan of a Hallstrom film since he made My Life as a Dog in his native Sweden in 1985, which is a long time ago, but he is a very nice man and perfectly aware of his reputation as the maestro of bland. He shot a thriller in Sweden recently – The Hypnotist, a detective story – in an attempt to subvert that reputation.
“I don’t want to be labelled as someone who does sentimental things. Making it was fun, but the police part – the twists and turns you are expected to have – are rather boring. I’m interested in character-driven stories and therefore I end up doing romances and family stories. And I guess I want to be optimistic. I want to do life-affirming things.”
The Hundred-Foot Journey ticks a lot of boxes for Hallstrom. “You could say it’s a bit of a distant relative to Chocolat. Culture clash: it’s about the utopian idea of actually meshing cultures and suggesting that people of all cultures might be able to connect and work together.”
He likes the mix of comedy, drama and foodie porn. He is also genuinely enthusiastic about working with veterans such as Puri who, as a Bollywood star, has made 250 films, and with Mirren. “She is impeccable,” he says. “She gives so many choices, valid choices, with any scene.”
It is Mirren who identifies the firm base under the story’s confection. Her name is an Anglicism; the Mironoff family came from Russia as refugees. In the gentlest way possible, The Hundred-Foot Journey is a story about one of the biggest issues of our day. “There are elements of the story I recognise,” says Mirren. “When my father came to Britain it was very homogeneous with very few immigrants; there wasn’t the community there is now. Of course, he arrived at the age of two, but his father was Om Puri’s character, if you like, thrown out – in a sense – of the land of his birth and having to make a life in another country.”
Now she is off to do a scene in which she sweeps through her kitchen, terrorising the staff by faulting their classical techniques: the Queen once more, but this time of the French stockpot. Helen Mirren, a French village and food porn; what’s not to like?
The Hundred-Foot Journey screens from August 14