Woman on Top (review)

Love at First Bite

I’m probably gonna regret this, but I’m about to reveal a big secret to all the guys reading this (though I promise that none of you will ever get the chance to take advantage of it). If you wanna get lucky with me, feed me the most exquisite meal imaginable — not the fanciest or the most expensive, just the perfect one (and exactly what constitutes the perfect meal for me I shall keep secret). Because my perfect dessert for my perfect meal is not an edible one, and not one suitably indulged in in a public restaurant.

As an alternative, take me to a movie about the sensual pleasures of food, like Woman on Top, which plays with the intimate connection between eating and sex and teases it out to a very satisfying climax. Oh, yes.
And what would great food and great sex be without beautiful people? Isabella Oliveira (Penélope Cruz) is so luscious that even I’d sleep with her. Her gorgeous husband, Toninho (Murilo Benício), would be next on my list, even though he’s a lout who, despite his adoration for his wife, can’t deal with the little idiosyncrasies she has adopted to deal with her severe motion sickness. She’s okay if she’s the one driving or leading a dance or on top in bed — she’s okay if she’s in control. But we girls know how lots of men react to a woman in charge: they feel their manliness threatened… particularly in such a macho culture as Isabella and Toninho’s Brazil.

Push comes to shove, and Isabella lights out for San Francisco, where her old friend, the crossdressing Monica Jones (Harold Perrineau Jr.: The Edge, Romeo + Juliet) lives, and where she has had offers of jobs from foodie tourists in Brazil. As the chef in Toninho’s restaurant in their town, she did all the work while he took the credit for its success… but now she intends to use her culinary prowess for her own benefit, and before long finds herself hosting a TV cooking show, Passion Food. With the irrepressible Monica as her sidekick, Isabella — all sweetly sexy innocence and confidence — seduces the city by the bay with the spicy cuisine of Brazil, and inadvertently beguiles her producer, Cliff Lloyd (Mark Feuerstein: The Muse, Practical Magic), at the same time.

The magic of food, the secrets of love… both are on an equally supernatural footing here. Isabella’s uncommon talent for cooking was bestowed upon her by Yemanja, the goddess of the sea, and it’s to Yemanja Isabella turns to free her from the spell, the “curse,” of her passion for Toninho, so entwined with the smells and tastes of the foods of Brazil that it interferes with her work. She blossoms without him, is suddenly irresistible to other men, and withers again when Toninho comes to San Francisco to win her back. Is there room at the top for a man in Isabella’s life, or is she better off alone?

Woman on Top is not, thank Yemanja, a man-bashing attempt to declaw Toninho — and, by extension, men in general — and turn him into, well, Monica, a kind, patient, sympathetic man in a dress. Nor do the filmmakers try to mold Toninho into Cliff, for that matter — Monica dubs the TV exec “sweet, modern, and sensitive,” supposedly all that Isabella needs after a man like her husband. And yet, Cliff is a boring drip whose ardor for Isabella never quite ignites. Toninho, though, for all his faults, is alive and passionate, not just for Isabella but for life. Screenwriter Vera Blasi and director Fina Torres know that love, like good food, needs spice to enliven it, that a bit of conflict and struggle make lovers more ardent, and that learning to embrace the differing needs of men and women instead of trying to eradicate them is the secret of the recipe for love. This is no watered-down, PC take on relationships — or an insipid Mars/Venus bid to coerce women into “understanding” men without receiving the same courtesy in return — but a lusty, playful, delicious appreciation of the sweet mysteries of men and women, love and sex.

Isabella signs off her TV show by reminding her viewers not to forget the final ingredient of all her dishes: to eat them with someone you love. The same can be said for Woman on Top. Take an, um, very good friend with you, because, er, you’ll want dessert afterward. Or maybe that’s just me.

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