Food Films, yes they’re a thing, though perhaps not yet a genre. Ever since the masterful Juzo Itami sent Tampopo on her search for the perfect ramen, it’s become clear that food has its own story to tell. Gabriel Alex’ sublime Babette’s Feast followed in 1987. With Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, these make up my holy trinity of food films. Babette’s Feast in particular has clearly influenced a number of later filmmakers.
These three films are beloved to me but how many others could well be considered here? Big Night, The Wedding Banquet, Chicken and Duck Talk , Ratatouille. There are films in which food features prominently, and then there are films in which food is the star: food films.
One food film I didn’t enjoy was Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat, though it is so very popular. With Juliet Binoche and Johnny Depp as stars and loving cinematography, its appeal was almost universal. I’m on my own here, finding Chocolat derivative and in some ways a poor man’s Babette’s Feast. So it was with some trepidation that I went to see Hallstrom’s The 100 Foot Journey.
To complicate matters I went in the company of my very French friend Anne-Marie. She had already expressed concern about Helen Mirren’s French accent. We couldn’t help wondering why a French actress wasn’t cast. Certainly Helen Mirren is a major draw card. Hallstrom would not have got away with using Binoche again and perhaps La Deneuve is a little senior for the role, my pick would be Julie Delpy with some help from make-up – she is a bit too young. Mirren is very good in the role and certainly her accent has none of the Clouseau-esque quality exhibited by so many British actors.
However veteran of India cinema Om Puri steals every scene he appears in as patriarch of this Muslim Indian family fleeing communal violence in Bombay. If you don’t know his name you may well recognise his face from the British film East is East (1999). Puri has had an exceptional film career spanning both popular and art house cinema. He has appeared in a number of Satyagit Ray films. His smallpox-marked face and baleful eyes perfectly suited for the role of this eccentric widower. Watching Mirren and Puri stealing every scene from their young, charming and beautiful co-stars (Charlotte Le Bon and Manish Dayal) is sheer joy.
Its no spoiler to say that the narrative revolves around the competition that develops after Papa (Puri) opens an Indian restaurant opposite Mirren’s Michelin-starred establishment. The film doesn’t avoid clichés, rather Hallstrom lovingly milks everyday French and Indian life and mores. The film touches on racism and nationalism in the new Europe. Underlying this, profound commentary on the nature of food and traditional, with a gentle swipe at molecular gastronomy and the current fad of Heston-like food as performance.
I’d already seen Ritesh Batra’s The Lunch Box and given that Indian food and love also feature, comparisons between the two films are inevitable. How was an old hippy-foodie like me not going to enjoy a film about Indian food? But with the rise of Bollywood and all things global, the film could have missed the mark, but didn’t. A bittersweet romantic comedy it also showed us the workings of Bombay’s extraordinary lunch wallahs. Their unerring ability to deliver lunch from kitchen to office in Bombay really calls our devotion to technology into question.
These illiterate delivery guys follow a time-honoured system that has provided Bonbay’s office workers with freshly made, home cooked lunches. Nimrat Kaur plays the neglected housewife determined to find the way back to her husband’s heart via his stomach. Her dialogues with the never-seen “auntie” living upstairs provide much humour and culinary wisdom. Irfhan Khan delivers a subtle performance as the lugubrious curmudgeon with a heart of gold and keen palate who is the unintended recipient of her cooking. Khan is a veteran of Indian cinema having also appeared in Salaam Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire.
No need to provide spoilers, the film is delicious. Just see it.
This brings me back to the food film as a genre.
Do food films constitute a genre?
Do we need a genre for food films?
What might the conventions of food films be?
Here’s my first attempt:
1. Food is the star
2. There must be struggle – preferably to provide food, or to master technique.
3. Food, which is presented in a positive light, will be home cooked and perhaps ethically sourced. (Mirren et al are never seen in a supermarket).
4. You will emerge from the theatre hungry.
5. Food porn? Let’s not go there – a food film will exhibit an aesthetic sensibility in which food shines and we leave the cinema hungry and inspired to cook.
Mirren’s character in the film assesses any potential new chef based on their ability to make an omelette, but in The 100’ Journey, it is Mirren who makes the omelette. I cooked an omelette for my dinner that evening. It was not Michelin standard but much improved on my previous efforts.
Long live the food film, but do eat first. When faced with images of bounteous delicacies, popcorn just doesn’t do the job.