FILM / Horses for courses: Adam Mars-Jones on Like Water for Chocolate

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The Independent Culture
AFTER Tampopo and Babette's Feast brought home the bacon by becoming international successes, it was inevitable that there would be other films making use of the universal language of food. The taste buds are daunted by subtitles: only pornography can compare with gastronomic narrative when it comes to leaping the cultural barriers.

The Mexican director Alfonso Arau's new film, Like Water for Chocolate (15), adapted by Laura Esquivel from her novel, is in the same category, though not in the same class. It isn't an art film, but that isn't the problem - where do we get the idea that any film not in English is arty by definition? It's a determinedly odd family saga, starting in 1895, that tells the story of three generations of Mexican women who love, suffer and (mainly) cook.

In Babette's Feast, the body's need for food was the chink in the armour of a world that set itself against pleasure in any form. When pleasure arrived, dish after dish of it, helping after helping, after so much self-denial, the shock was as great in its way as the shock in Black Narcissus when we see scarlet lipstick in close-up after 90 minutes of restrained oatmeal and ivory. Food in Like Water for Chocolate is a repository of value from beginning to end, but despite the film-makers' intentions, and their rather sickly style of lyricism, it comes to represent something pretty twisted.

Everyone is likely to have an indefensible fondness for some childhood treat (usually sweet, combining sugar and nostalgia). Public schoolboys, for instance, are notoriously susceptible in maturity to fetishised combinations of the bland and the sticky. But Tita (Lumi Cavazos) isn't like that. If she was an English ex-public schoolboy she'd be more likely to wear shorts for life and to dream of being slippered. Since the kitchen is the only place where she's allowed to express herself, she learns to be a manipulative witch of cuisine. The funny thing is that her self-oppression, which also oppresses others, is presented to the audience as a model of liberation.

Liberation from what? From the tyranny of women. There are no male authority figures in the film. Who would have thought that Mexico in the early years of this century was such a savage martriarchy? By a strict family tradition, Tita, being the youngest daughter, may not marry but must look after her mother, Mama Elena (Regina Torne, making Medusa look like Thora Hird), in her old age. Tita retreats to the kitchen, where she simmers everything in her frustration, anger and her unfulfilled passion for Pedro (Marco Leonardi), who loves her back but marries her sister Rosaura as the only way of being near her.

The film is in a rather awkward mode of magical realism, a style that probably works better on the page and which Arau as director certainly never gets the measure of. Fantasy, like any strong spice, needs to be used sparingly or it will make any dish taste the same. (This is, self-denyingly, the last food metaphor in a review of a film that contains little else except food metaphors).

According to family legend, Tita's birth was brought on by a flux of tears while her mother was chopping onions, an anecdote that is simply grotesque when told visually, with salt water sluicing in long shot across the floor as labour starts on the kitchen table. At times of stress and sadness, Tita goes into overdrive as a knitter, a conceit that becomes only a dumb joke when we watch her buggy drive past the camera trailing a full furlong of quilt. The whole film can seem like that: a lightweight structure weighed down with swathes of symbolism and leaden play.

Like Water for Chocolate soon crosses the dividing line between magical realism and wishful thinking. Almost everything Tita cooks embodies her feelings and has the power to change people, to enchant or destroy. It actually comes as a bit of a shock when, late in the film, Tita bakes a ceremonial loaf that turns out only to be bread. Wonderful bread, but not the bread of wonders.

Who wouldn't want to be the cook, when the cook has such power? The fact that most cooking is and can only be a chore, forgotten as a product, remembered only because it must be repeated so often, conveniently gets lost. We never see the narrator of the film, Tita's great niece, anywhere but in the kitchen, so it doesn't look as if women belong in the wider world later in the century. Part of the Gorgon-mother sin seems to have been that she tried to do without man, and paid little attention to what was expected of her gender.

In fact, Like Water for Chocolate is a film about women with enough chauvinism in it to satisfy the most repressive enforcer of family values. Tita only wants to get married after all. She's a born mother, so much so that she is able secretly to breast-feed Rosaura's children while still a virgin.

Away from gender roles, the film's underlying attitudes are no more likable. The middle sister, Gertrudis (Claudette Maille), runs off with a revolutionary and later proves to have unexpected flair on the dance floor. She's 'hot blooded', which turns out to mean that her real father was of mixed race (rumours of Moma Elena's infidelity killed her husband, one more thing to blame her for). Mixed blood drives her impulsiveness, her sensuality and her natural sense of rhythm. Pure blood on the other hand makes manipulative martyrs like Tita.

Tita may be a nifty little suckler, but the milk of human kindness is hardly her stock-in-trade. She punishes her sister Rosaura for collaborating with the matriarchy by means of a dish that makes her fat, flatulent and foul-breathed, sexily repulsive to the man who you might think had done her wrong by marrying her under false pretences. But the film will never blame a man when there's a woman around. Meanwhile Tita has the nerve to prescribe her victim a slimming, digestion-soothing diet and some remedies for halitosis. If someone like Tita offers you lunch, take my advice and eat junk food instead. She's got a lot more in common with Lucrezia Borgia than with Elizabeth David - and Lucrezia, too, was a cook of a certain sort.

(Photograph omitted)