A weird thing happened when they made The Hundred-Foot Journey. See, at face value it’s one of the movies about food and family and the human heart and I’m bored and making a lemon sucking face just typing that tripe.
And they succeeded in that step, making a perfectly mediocre and irrelevant foodie movie, full of those lines like “food is memory” and something about love, I don’t know, seriously I wasn’t paying much attention to any of that. I’m sure someone likes food movies the way that others of us with good taste like the way that all sports movies are exactly the same movie. So if you’re into that, um, bully for you, here’s a film for you. The south of France! Hijinks! Crazy ingredients! A brilliant young chef! Michelin Stars! Picking mushrooms in the forest! Go get your Eat, Pray, Vomit on if that’s your thing.
The film features very human characters, real portraits of people even in the smallest of roles. It allows the very good actors it has throughout the room to breathe in their roles, letting life be a succession of small movements and evolutions rather than dramatic set pieces of emotion. The script allows actors to say things without words, instead of foisting overwrought speeches and half-assed philosophy upon the audience, as seems to be a tradition in this little sub-genre.
So I’m being a bit cruel, and I suppose criticizing the genre more than this film in particular. Because come on, it’s kind of a fun genre to crap on.
But here’s the exceedingly strange thing. While it is a decent food movie, it’s also simultaneously a very interesting and nuanced movie about the nature of genius. Sure, it’s a genius with cooking, but the deepest parts of the movie’s story would not be out of place if all the food was exchanged for math or literature, or any other field of human endeavor.
It’s reflected in the deep sadness and hope of so many of the characters. Of a father who hopes his son is as good as he seems, of an old restaurateur who resents young genius even as she can’t deny its power. Of the would-be lover who can’t help but be devoured by envy, her quiet indignation at the unfairness of not having the touch herself no matter how much she craves it and no matter how much she works at it.
And it gets that genius is something that is worked at. That while it’s a thing that is born into the souls of some rare talents, that it’s not something that’s free. It shows the endless hours of work, the infinite devotion of every waking moment to a perfection. So much of our culture likes to pretend that genius is magic, some totem that a chosen few get, and that they live charmed lives of ease. Or alternately that they pay a karmic price for it by teetering on the edge of mental illness, so that “tortured” is practically implied by the word in pop culture.
But genius, real genius in the flesh and not on cheap cinema, is more about blood and sweat than it is about being struck by divine favor. Yes, that latter element is the sine qua non, but it’s nothing but wasted potential without the dedication, without the grit. This doesn’t make geniuses saints, nor arrogant pricks, nor anything in between. And this movie really gets that on a fundamental level, and teases it out with all its implications.
Yes, it’s a food movie, and one that I expected to be at best an entertaining and well-acted lark. I hardly expected a meditation on genius, which makes it a far better movie than it appears at first blush.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.