A clash of cultures and culinary artistry lie at the heart of this warm and witty comedy drama, bolstered by gorgeous cinematography and some great performances. While food is undoubtedly at the core of the movie, adapted from Richard C Morais’ novel, it’s more to do with what food means to us as individuals, as families and ultimately how it comes to represent us as a culture: food is memories.
When the Kadam family are forced to flee India after their restaurant is fire bombed in an attack which kills their mother, they escape to Europe but struggle to find a place to settle until their old van breaks down in a small French village near the border with Switzerland. Papa Kadam, enamoured of the village and its abundance of fresh produce, decides to settle his family there and purchases a run-down restaurant building to restart the family business. However, their new restaurant is a mere 100 feet away from the upscale Michelin-starred Le Saule Pleureur, and its prim and proper owner, the fearsome Mme Mallory is not happy about her new neighbours.
Taking its inspiration from its subject matter, director Lasse Hallström’s film is a fresh and flavoursome three course meal, serving up a tantalizing feast for the eyes and ears. There’s nothing groundbreakingly original here, but isn’t that the point of cordon bleu cuisine? It’s not about what’s new and different but about the quality of the ingredients and the skill with which they’re combined in a time honoured way.
The bold appetiser shows the Kadams flight from India and brief stay in England before venturing further South to Switzerland then France. The main course is a richly indulgent tale of cultural and business rivalry served against a backdrop of an exquisite, impossibly pretty French village and seasoned well with an assortment of fruity and full-bodied characters. There’s even a hint of spice as the movie declines to sidestep some of the uglier aspects of being a newcomer and an immigrant to a small, insular rural community without ever feeling overcooked or heavy.
Dessert arrives in a suitably pleasurable finale but it’s a decidedly leisurely affair and you may feel you’re still waiting for your coffee and mints when all you want to do is pay the bill and leave. When there’s this much to savour, though, you can almost forgive the makers for being reluctant to bring proceedings to a close twenty minutes earlier.
Mirren is simply magnificent as the stern and stubborn Madame Mallory, delivering a performance of subtlety and intelligence that allows her to convey more than any dialogue could with a half-raised eyebrow or a change in posture. Counterbalancing her tightly controlled, elegant performance is a twinkly-eyed, gravel-voiced turn by veteran Indian actor Om Puri, his Papa Kadam a wonderfully intoxicating mixture of low cunning and a heart as big as all outdoors. The frostiness of the relationship between the French matriarch and the Indian patriarch is contrasted nicely against the hesitant romance which develops between rival up and coming chefs Hassan, played by Manish Dayal, and Marguerite, played by Charlotte Le Bon.
From apéritif to digestif, popadom to khulfi or even from soup to nuts, this is a delectable romantic comedy drama which rewards foodies and film fans alike. It doesn’t quite reach the emotional heights of “Chef” or the adorable quirkiness of “Ratatouille”, it’s comfortably a member of my top three foodie movies. To paraphrase Chandler Bing, your bouche will definitely be amused.