A politician with half a face once said, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” It was Harvey Dent, and it was in a movie, and he may not have been the eventual villain he feared himself to be (getting pushed off a ledge by Batman can put a real pin in any future plans) but the guy knew what he was talking about.
This summer has had a villain problem, at least when it comes to presenting us with villains who are genuinely fearsome: both worthy of inspiring fear and capable of inspiring that same fear. We’ve got a lot of heroes, but the villain business is in serious need of some fresh blood. Matt Singer at The Dissolve effectively laid out why Thanos is not working for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (short version: he’s boring and hasn’t done anything truly menacing yet), and both of this summer’s great (truly great) monster movies, Godzilla and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, didn’t go whole hog on the “bad guy” thing (the apes of DOTPOTA were reasonable, Godzilla just seemed grumpy and was eventually lauded as a hero). Do you even remember who we were supposed to be afraid of in The Purge: Anarchy? (Answer: human nature.) Who was the big bad in Transformers or X-Men: Days of Future Past? Was there even a bad guy in The Amazing Spider-Man 2? Where are this summer’s truly terrifying villains?
Well, there’s one – and she’s in a Disney movie about cooking.
Most of the summer’s biggest blockbusters are, well, just that – blockbusters, the kind that feature extraordinary events and extraordinary settings and extraordinary people. Sure, it might be fun to watch robot alien dinosaurs stomp across the screen while Mark Wahlberg yells something, but it’s not exactly relatable (and while something being “relatable” is certainly a subjective question, most people probably don’t feel too much kinship with such a story). What is relatable to most people are the kind of everyday cruelties that pile up over time.
When it comes to such everyday cruelties, Helen Mirren has cornered the market with her turn in Lasse Halstrom‘s The Hundred-Foot Journey. The film is ostensibly a feel-good feature about family and food, and while it has plenty of charming elements, it features Mirren as a human being who is nothing short of a monster. Halstrom’s film traces the Kadam family as they journey from India to France (with a brief, bad stop in England) to start their lives over, lives that have been nearly wrecked by a fire that claimed their matriarch and their family restaurant. When they finally settle in a small town in France, they purchase a new restaurant (one in need of some major TLC) that just so happens to be across the street from Madame Mallory’s (Mirren) Michelin-starred dining palace. Although the Kadams aren’t looking to directly compete with Madame’s joint – they are all about big flavors, big sounds, and big family, whereas Madame’s is a stuffy classical joint frequented by politicians and bored children – it doesn’t matter to the restauranteur. She wants them out.
What follows is a series events classified by all characters as a “war,” and while that sounds kind of fun and frisky, Mirren’s Madame Mallory is filled with such wickedness that it’s actually unsettling. Her cruelty is recognizable and real. She buys out food from the local market so that the Kadams have nothing to cook. She turns the other cheek when she sees her own employees lurking outside the restaurant late at night, clearly up to no good. She diminishes their talents. She’s cutting. And she’s not a space monster sitting on a space chair demanding space stones from some space travelers, she’s an actual person who has lived to become a villain.
And, yes, while this might sound silly – Helen Mirren is scary, okay, sure – it’s one of the most striking things about The Hundred-Foot Journey. Halstrom’s film is probably too dark for its own good, a fizzy family story that’s brought down by racism, class warfare, and xenophobia. Madame Mallory is the wellspring of all this darkness (at least until the film’s second half, when she slowly tries to work her way back to humanity, thanks to food and love, obviously). She sets out to wound a family (a family!) that’s just trying to make a life for themselves because she’s too insecure to welcome a dash of healthy competition. She’s a bad person and she’s also a bad businessperson. You probably know someone like her.
That’s why she works so well, however, because even though the first thing we learn about Madame Mallory’s personal life – dead husband, only has the restaurant to keep her going – attempts to humanize her, it’s only as we see her being inhumane that we come to understand her. Here is a villain with motivation and backstory and drive that we can understand, and yet she’s still monstrous. She’s terrifying, because she’s a real person (she eats to live, people! just like you!), and it’s baffling that she’s the summer villain that chilled me the very most – not the apes or the MUTOs or the government or the decriminalized criminals, but a small British woman who hates limp asparagus.
Plus, she has a butler she routinely harasses, and if that’s not villain material, what is?