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Robert Appelbaum
A Marxist Analysis of The
Hundred Foot Journey

Or, In the Name of Foodie-ism and
Multiculturalism, Hollywood Goes
Elitist Again

The American film directed by the Swede Lasse Hallström, and starring Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish
Dayal and Charlotte Le Bon, finally came to Sweden, two months after its release in America. Like most
films about food today, including Hallström’s own Chocolat starring Juliette Binoche,
The Hundred Food
Journey
is a feel-good movie, ending in Hollywood happiness and never allowing us to worry that
something other than Hollywood happiness is in the offing. That means that the conflicts that give rise to
the plot are either mushy or predictably solvable. It also means that the film surrenders itself to the
comforts of cushy readability. Whenever a potentially sad situation arises in the film, it starts to rain
outside. Whenever time passes, long shots of the countryside show us the seasons picturesquely
changing in quick motion – snow falling, snow melting, greenery growing – or of fireworks exploding
against the night time sky, marking either Bastille Day or New Year’s Eve.  Whenever two people of the
same age of the opposite sex meet, they will, after an interval of uncertainty, end up as partners. Variety’s
Justin Chang
faulted the movie for being ‘so content to settle for attractive mediocrity’.  The New York
Times’ A.O. Scott more
acerbically states that ‘the dominant flavour of The Hundred-Foot Journey is pure
banality’.
Even more tellingly, Scott remarks that the ‘film is not in love with food; it is commercially invested in the
idea that food is something people think they love’. And that is where a Marxist analysis of the movie
might begin: first, with an understanding of the commercial investment of the film in a cultural fantasy;
second, with an understanding of the fantasy itself. People think they are in love with food, but actually
they are in love with the idea of loving food. And what they actually love, fantastically, is a commodity,
falsely represented in their minds as an object of worship, or what Marx would call a ‘fetish’.   

Examples of falsity abound. Scott points out how a hollandaise sauce the main character is making is
actually a mayonnaise, made with oil instead of butter – a major error in a film that is supposed to be
about the art of fine food. Others might point out that the classical, Escoffier cooking the Michelin-starred
restaurant is shown to serve is not something, today, that a Michelin-starred restaurant would ever likely
prepare, or that a restaurant in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, in southwestern France (where the movie takes
place) would ever think of putting on the menu. There is no suggestion of the terroir cuisine with local
wines that almost any such restaurant would boast of today, whether with traditional southwestern dishes
like cassoulet or more inventive dishes with regional ingredients that a starred restaurant would usually
feature. Sea urchins are used as a sign of authentic local cuisine in Saint-Antonin, although the town is
landlocked, about 140 kilometres from the Mediterranean, and actual local ingredients like foie gras,
lamb and plums, which the area is famed for, are ignored.  Meanwhile, the apparently authentic, gourmet
Indian food that the film’s Indian restaurant is shown to prepare relies on spices the head chef is
supposed to have inherited from his mother, who died in Mumbai at least two years before the action of the
movie takes place. But no self-respecting Indian chef would ever serve spices over two years old, much
less, as the movie shows them, spices already ground into powder, and left in tins for several years. The
only way to make exceptional Indian cuisine is to use newly harvested spices freshly ground or roasted.

And did I mention the market? In the film’s Saint-Antonin there is apparently an open air market in
session every day, where a chef might go in the morning to buy his or her produce, and where all the
colourful locals gather in the act of, well, being colourful locals. In fact, Saint Antonin’s market is only
open on Sundays. Like people almost everywhere in France, the inhabitants of the real Saint-Antonin do
most of their food shopping in supermarkets owned by multinational corporations.

So, just as the relationships between people in the film are too good to be true, so are relationships
between people and food. Or rather, relationships between people and food are both too good to be true
and not true enough to be good. It is too good to be true because selling, buying, preparing and eating
genuinely good food is just not so easy as the film makes it out to be, and not so moronically formulaic
either.  It is not true enough to be good, on the other hand, because the actual labour that it takes to
provide good food in southwestern France – the true work of the farmer, the distributor, the preparer and
the server – is concealed behind empty gestures toward tradition and good taste.

So a Marxist analysis of
The Hundred Foot Journey might likely focus on the ideology of food the film
communicates, an ideology where food is worshipped rather than understood and enjoyed, since after all
food is not really food in modern capitalist society – it is a commodity. But that is only half of what a
Marxist analysis might be concerned, and not the most important half. For there is also the matter of the
film’s embrace of neo-liberalism.

Americans, who have made up the largest portion of the audience for this box office success so far, might
Americans, who have made up the largest portion of the audience for this box office success so far, might
be inclined to think of the film as being ‘liberal’. After all, the two marquee producers of the film, Steven
Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, are liberals, in the American sense of the word, politically generous toward
others. And apart from being a celebration of food as a commodity, the film is also a celebration of
multiculturalism. The film is about an Indian family who move to France and open a restaurant across
the road from a refined French establishment. A good deal of resentment is born out of the imposition of
Indian culture in a traditional French area, the resentment coming to a crisis when unidentified thugs
vandalise the Indian property, setting the kitchen afire and spray-painting on the property’s wall, ‘France
for the French’. From that disaster the movie kicks into feel-good gear as the community stands behind
the Indian immigrants, and the owner of the fine French establishment, played by Helen Mirren, stops
opposing them and instead comes to be their friend and supporter. Eventually, French and Indian cooks
learn things from each other, Indian techniques and ingredients get smartly adapted into French dishes,
French and Indians get to be close friends and even lovers, possibly partners in marriage … and everyone
lives happily ever after.

And so the liberal dream is confirmed and celebrated. Everyone can get along. Cultures can learn from
one another. People can intermarry. People will be successful. And the food will be great.

But can they? Will they? Will they? How might they? Will it?

Consider two central characteristics that underlie the film’s liberal dream: first, its representation of what
it means to be a good cook today; second, its embrace of elitist economics.

The world of the French restaurant in the film is a world of intense competition. What is important in
French cuisine, we are shown again and again, is the Michelin star.
The essence of the restaurant is to be
in competition with other restaurants.  It is to be in competition with them economically, of course; but
above all, it is in competition with them in reputation. The whole of the French restaurant world, so far as
fine dining is concerned, is a kind of sports arena, where chefs and restaurateurs vie with one another for
trophies of recognition, and where aspiring young cooks vie with one another as well as with their elders
to enter the game, score points, and become chefs and restaurateurs on their own. Whether or not this is
really what the restaurant world is like (but of course it is not really like that), this is the television vision
of the restaurant world. This is the media vision of fine dining, where it is imagined that working is
actually a game, that life is actually a game show, and that what matter for contestants in the game of life
is winning.

Cooking competitions can be fun and instructive, and competitiveness among masters of the culinary
arts is surely a boon to culinary excellence. But to a large extent in the world of the media, and almost
entirely in the world of
The Hundred Foot Journey, cooking is nothing but a competition. It is something
at which one either wins or loses. In fact, the spirit of most of
The Hundred Foot Journey is very little
different from the spirit of a conventional sports or diva film. From out of obscurity – in this case Mumbai –
a star will be born: or literally, Michelin stars will appear. And victory in the star business will be capped
not only with fame a sense of personal achievement, but also of course with money.

In the real world, it is important to keep in mind, most chefs and restaurateurs are neither rich nor
famous; most restaurant-workers are poorly paid and labour for long hours under difficult conditions;
and most restaurants, unless they belong to a large corporation, do not succeed in lasting more than a
few years. The real restaurant world is a difficult place to make a living. And except for a few free spirits
here and there, it is not a game. A film like
The Hundred Foot Journey, much like Chef, a film about which
I commented in an earlier post, falsifies both the nature of restaurant work and, perhaps even more
importantly, the structure of feeling to be associated with it. In fact, in both films, although the restaurant
world is an arena of competition, except for designated bad guys there are never any losers.

Ideology at its utmost: a vision of economic life where everything is struggle, competition, arduous effort,
but only so far as economic life is really only a game, and in fact a game where good guys are always
winners, and suffering (except those few who deserve to suffer) has therefore been abolished. This vision
has nothing to do with the ‘liberalism’ of intellectuals, from John Stuart Mills to John Kenneth Galbraith,
though it apparently has something to do with liberalism of Spielberg and Winfrey: this is the vision of the
‘neo-liberalism’ of Austrians, Chicagoans and Italian-School economists, where the possibility of loss is
rendered invisible or harmless, and where the real nature of labour, value and suffering is hidden behind
the worship of the commodity and the marketplace, twin gods who rule beneficently over a beneficent

universe.


Yes, you say. But the real winners in
The Hundred Foot Journey are dark-skinned immigrants and their
light-skinned French-born lovers! Yes, but neither liberalism nor neo-liberalism are racist or anti-
immigration. The free movement of labour is a demand of neo-liberalist doctrine. Neo-liberal doctrine is
impatient of borders, cultural conflict and discrimination. It wants everyone to be available as a worker
and consumer, and everyone, through trade, to get along.

But the world of
The Hundred Foot Journey is not really divided between light-skinned and dark-skinned
peoples. Only the bad guys, the bigots and thugs, feel that way. The world is really divided between people
who can own fine food restaurants, or who can dine in them, and those who cannot. When the owner of
the fine French restaurant becomes romantically involved with the owner of the fine Indian restaurant
(Om Puri), and when the star chef from India (Manish Dayal) becomes romantically as well as
economically involved with the ambitious chef from France (Charlotte Le Bon), what we see is not only
miscegeny. We also see the lower bourgeoisie close ranks. The owners of restaurants in France, as
elsewhere, are in competition with one another. But so far as they all depend on the stability of the same
economic system, so far as they play a major role in the economic system – running restaurants that serve
as markers of class as well as providers of culinary excellence – they are all in this together. Competition
is a lot of fun but solidarity comes first. Otherwise there is no arena.
The Hundred Foot Journey ends
when the hundred feet between the French and the Indian restaurants is no longer a ‘journey’.
Capitalism wins. And boy does that feel good. Apparently it even tastes good too.  
Ostensibly a nonfiction account of growing up and living in
various corners of consumer culture in the twentieth century
and beyond, Appelbaum’s book works its way into all sorts of
unexpected zones of thought and life. As the book’s story
unfolds, the author questions the very possibilities and limits
of memoir and academic study in modern society. To say this
book is hard to pin down genre-wise doesn’t quite get it right,
because the book sticks together so well that one has the
distinct sensation of experiencing an altogether new form.

-- Christopher Schaberg, New Orleans Review