In “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” Dame Helen Mirren plays a rather stern proprietress of a one-star Michelin restaurant in southern France. Since the movie is partly about exquisite food, there are times when her character lets down her guard and has what can best described as orgiastic reaction when tasting some particularly delicious morsel.
I wondered if Mirren had any similar response.
“You mean have I ever had an orgasm?” the Oscar-winning actress for “The Queen” volleys back without missing a beat and drawing the laugh. I quickly clarify. To food — had she ever had such intense pleasure from consuming food?
Looking quite regal herself this day in a white lace Dolce & Gabbana dress with her short-cropped hair a blend of silver and golden blond, Mirren then embarks on a tale of when she was a young actress dating a wealthy Oxford professor who took her to dinner one evening to taste an expensive bottle of vintage wine.
“I couldn't imagine how much it cost but, my god, when I tasted it I had an orgasm. It was my first taste of an amazing wine, I was so lucky. It was that good — and then, it's never the same again,” she deadpanned, drawing another laugh.
While “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” opening Friday, revolves around all types of delicious food — from ethnic to the showiest cuisine in Paris — the film from Lasse Hallstrom also involves a clash of cultures, questions of intolerance and a love story or two.
The screenplay, by Academy Award nominee Steven Knight, is based on the novel by Richard C. Morais, which had once been a pick by Oprah Winfrey for her book club. The famed talk-show host and actress is one of the producers of the movie, along with filmmaking icon Steven Spielberg, who for a while had considered directing it, and Juliet Blake, a former producer for the BBC.
The story is about a family in India who are tragically driven from their homeland due to ethnic violence. After a brief stop in Britain, the Kadam family — led by Papa (the great Indian actor Om Puri) — settles in the charming village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in the south of France and decides to open an Indian restaurant.
The rundown farmhouse they choose to renovate happens to be across the street from a notable French restaurant run by Madame Mallory (Mirren), who takes none too kindly to the competition, the cuisine, nor the loud Indian music emitting from the place.
While her establishment is run with an almost military precision, Madame Mallory has a soft spot for her effervescent sous chef, Marguerite (French-Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon).
Papa's secret ingredient is his son Hassan (South Carolina-born Manish Dayal), who has an almost supernatural relationship with food. Naturally, the young people establish a rapport faster than Papa and Madame Mallory do.
Swedish director Hallstrom, who has lived in the states for 20 years, made another film with food at its center, “Chocolat” (2000), the fablelike story of a small-town candy maker in the late 1950s who shakes up her French community by staying open on Sundays. Starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, the romantic dramedy received five Oscar nominations and four Golden Globe nominations.
Hallstrom says he hesitated somewhat when offered “The Hundred-Foot Journey” because he knew there would be comparisons to “Chocolat,” but he feels the real similarity is that both are comedies inside a drama and driven by character and shaded performances.
The director of such hits as “The Cider House Rules,” “What's Eating Gilbert Grape” and “Dear John,” based on the Nicholas Sparks novel and starring Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried, decided to change his approach to shooting food, however.
In “Chocolat,” he used montages to film the ornate sweets. When the script for “Hundred” suggested the same thing, Hallstrom decided instead to show the extravagant meals in long, sensuous takes. Whichever method is used, though, no one can walk out of either film and not feel hungry.
During the seven-week film shoot, a master chef prepared sumptuous meals, but it was all done for show. The cast wasn't allowed to eat any of it, not that they exactly starved.
They were, as Mirren points out, living in “a spectacularly beautiful part of France with amazing markets; so we had plenty of recourse for food.”
Once a week, she says, Puri “would create a great Indian meal. He's a natural chef.”
This brings to mind for Mirren another film she worked on featuring food — Peter Greenaway's 1989 black comedy “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” in which the actress plays the wife of a restaurant-owning gangster who has an affair.
All the meals shown in that film were prepared by a high-level chef and then sprayed to keep them looking perfect. Meanwhile, because it was such a low-budget film, the cast wasn't allowed to eat at the studio's commissary.
“Instead, we had to go to this sort of funky place that brought in Spam,” recalls Mirren. “Then we would go back to film with all this wonderful-looking food. It was absolutely cruel.”
As for her own time in the kitchen, “I love cookbooks and I watch cookery programs religiously. I love the idea of cooking better than actually doing it.”
Here Mirren sighs. “There's the shopping and the unpacking and finding room in the refrigerator, then the chopping, then you have to clean up afterwards and just for this one thing of going, ‘Oh, that's good.' ”
With that attitude, acting was a better career choice for her than chef.
In “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” Mirren sounds like one, though, with a formidable French accent. She used to think she spoke the language fairly well but now admits, “It sounds good, but it's grammatically awful. So that was a good lesson for me.” She adds, “The accent wasn't difficult. The hard part is trying not to sound like Peter Sellers.”
Working on “Hundred” was fun, she notes, because Hallstrom let the cast improvise a lot. But the actress says her aim now is to try to cut her dialogue.
“It's so nice to have a wonderful speech like I did in ‘Hitchcock.' You don't often have that in films, and we could use a bit more of that.
“But film is a visual medium, and if you can do it with a look, all is the better. The problem is that you never know if you're quite communicating what you intend.”
Mirren says actor-producer Bob Balaban (“Gosford Park”) once gave her some “brilliant” film acting advice, which is that you have to imagine you're an archer letting go of an arrow.
“Once you let the arrow go, it's gone,” she says. “You just have to allow people to see what they see.”
When you are as good as Mirren, that's a recipe for success.