Four stars. Rated PG, and quite pointlessly; suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.8.14
This film is as sweetly “old world” as its narrative: unhurried, gently amusing and utterly delectable.
Director Lasse Hallström has uncorked another effervescent, food-based fairy tale every bit as enchanting as his 2000 adaptation of Chocolat. That, too, was set in a small French village and based on a charming novel (by Joanne Harris). This new film, adapted by Steven Knight from Richard C. Morais’ equally engaging book, will delight foodies, romantics and those who believe that not all culture clashes must end badly.
And while Hallström’s touch is primarily whimsical, the narrative has a bit of bite, and also a moral that reminds us to follow our hearts ... and that, to quote a certain Dorothy Gale, there’s no place like home.
But while the bulk of Knight’s script is flavorsome, the appetizer-sized prologue is both a mouthful and somewhat difficult to digest. It feels like a massive portion of Morais’ book has been compressed into an abbreviated flashback, showing how the Mumbai-based Kadam family loses its restaurant — and endures horrific personal tragedy — during an unspecified political clash; then moves to London, but finds both the climate and local foodstuffs unappetizing; and subsequently seeks a warmer environment (in both spirit and temperature) during a European road trip.
At which point their vehicle breaks down, fortuitously, outside the quaint little hamlet of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, in the south of France.
“Brakes don’t fail for no reason,” insists patriarch Papa (Om Puri), who views this incident as A Sign, much the way he falls in love with the abandoned former restaurant on the village outskirts. But his family’s efforts to transform this dilapidated wreck into a haven of Indian cuisine — cheekily dubbed Maison Mumbai — are viewed with grim disapproval by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren).
Her Michelin-starred French restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur, is literally just across the country road — 100 feet away — from Papa Kadam’s new venture.
Madame Mallory doesn’t tolerate competition; indeed, she very likely contributed to the failure of the previous eatery across the road. And in a village small enough for her imperious desires to hold sway — much to the distress of the mayor (Michel Blanc, in a small but quite droll part) — the result is all-out war, albeit a skirmish conducted clandestinely, on a battlefield marked by city codes and the local farmers’ market.
A challenge that Papa Kadam embraces with equal enthusiasm.
But while these two generals wage their combat, a much subtler dance takes place between their foot soldiers. Papa’s eldest son, Hassan (Manish Dayal), is their family’s chef; he works culinary wonders, thanks to a combination of natural talent and an almost magical suitcases of spices passed down from his mother.
Hassan has befriended Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), Madame Mallory’s sous chef; the young woman is equally taken by this somewhat exotic stranger. As it happened, Marguerite was the kind soul who “rescued” the Kadam family after their near-wreck outside Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val; by the time she and Hassan realize their status as reluctant competitors, it’s too late. The gentle scent of love is as prevalent as the rich aromas emanating from both kitchens.
Mirren is at her frosty best as the icy Madame Mallory, her contemptuous insults delivered with a smile that does little to mask their sting. We laugh and wince simultaneously, both amused and horrified by such impeccably delivered examples of French hauteur. But this woman’s behavior stems more from circumstance than nurture; she has become too invested in her restaurant, and in safeguarding its much-prized Michelin star.
Part of the resulting clash is hilarious because of the massive cultural divide; Le Saule Pleureur sets its genteel mood with Mozart, while Maison Mumbai — one of the neon letters forever flickering — relies on loud, totally vivacious Bollywood music. The demurely dressed Madame Mallory waits for her customers to enter; Papa Kadam, garbed in colorful finery bright enough to illuminate the night, cheerfully drags them from the street.
Economic warfare, alas, has a way of escalating. When that line is crossed — when Madame Mallory realizes what she has unleashed — we’re treated to what becomes another of Mirren’s flawlessly shaded performances. Atonement, and the crack in Madame Mallory’s veneer, comes with the kind offering of an umbrella. Watch Mirren’s face, during this moment: such a wealth of emotions.
Madame Mallory’s eventual thaw is as inevitable as sunrise in a story of this nature, but Morais’ plot isn’t quite that simple. Our expectations are met during the film’s second act, but then we plunge forward into an unexpected third act, with a stronger moral.
Puri, a long-celebrated actor known both in his native country and abroad, re-invents the stereotypical crusty, cantankerous patriarch who suffers fools not at all, let alone gladly. Although often employed here for comic relief — whether through his insistence on haggling, or scathingly perceptive one-liners — Papa Kadam is far from one-dimensional; much emanates from Puri’s weathered features.
Papa Kadam has endured hardship; his eyes aren’t quite free from pain, particularly when it comes to the protective embrace with which he shelters his family. And while he stubbornly adheres to tradition when it comes to food, he’s not oblivious to the encroachment of modern society. He tolerates advice and backchat from his children — even his daughters — although such wisdom likely will be ignored.
In short, Papa Kadam is as impossible to resist as Puri’s gracious charm, and the twinkle in his eye.
Dayal has the most intriguing role, as the pivot in this story. At first a culinary and cultural ingénue in a strange land, Hassan also carries the weight of his family’s expectations; if their restaurant is to succeed, he must find a way to present their traditional cuisine in a manner that will be welcomed in this provincial French atmosphere. Dayal persuasively conveys the insatiable appetite and voracious curiosity of a born student: one who hungers to learn, and then to share.
But Hassan also is a young man in love, and his early scenes with Marguerite are as delicate as a soufflé: a courtship ignited as much by a shared love of foodstuffs, as by the gently sensuous frisson of mutual attraction.
Le Bon has her own challenge: to make Marguerite more than the almost iconic “luscious French enchantress” that she seems at first glance. (I mean, really; could she be any cuter?) Le Bon handles this demand gracefully; Marguerite has her own dreams and desires, and they don’t necessarily include Hassan or his family. Indeed, circumstances conspire against these young, would-be lovers, causing Marguerite to question Hassan’s motives. (Silly girl. As if Hassan could be anything but genuine.)
This eventual discord is refreshingly subtle. It is such a relief to see two filmmakers — Hallström and Knight — trust their audience to connect the dots, as opposed to spoon-feeding us details via the lazy, said-bookism dialogue that infects far too many of today’s movies.
The luxurious countryside setting becomes even more enchanting via cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camerawork, and we can’t help but chuckle during each bird’s-eye view of these two establishments, one on either side of the long road that extends to a distant horizon. Sandgren also has great fun with several long tracking shots, most notably as the Kadam family transforms their ramshackle new digs into a warm and inviting eatery.
I do wish we could learn more about Hassan’s siblings, particularly the almost-adult Mansure (Amit Shah) and Mahira (Farzana Dua Elahe). Adolescent Aisha (Aria Pandya) and Mukthar (Dillon Mitra) are little more than decorative props, but Mansure and Mahira are old enough to figure more robustly in this storyline.
Similarly, it would be useful to get a better bead on Jean-Pierre (Clément Sibony), Madame Mallory’s condescending head chef.
And, yes, the pacing is a bit too leisurely; editor Andrew Mondshein could have tightened this 122-minute film a bit.
The script’s many perceptive truths and gentle gibes include one that quite accurately indicts a contemporary trend toward “craft” cuisine based more on chemistry — and the false prestige of status — than the simple romance of the dining experience itself. We’re reminded, more than once, that the best foods — the most treasured meals — evoke the memories of who and where we were, when last we sampled such a repast.
Cinematically speaking, Hallström’s film takes me back to similarly mouth-watering food flicks such as Tom Jones, Eat Drink Man Woman, Big Night, Babette’s Feast, Ratatouille, Julie and Julia and, of course, Chocolat.
Fine dining, indeed. As is this scrumptious charmer.