** The Pitch: It’s feminism, but you wouldn’t know it
This is the film that broke Penélope Cruz in Hollywood, but after those zany Pedro Amóldovar films she cut her teeth on, Woman On Top could have been a lot better.
Having gained notoriety for her topless scene in Jamon Jamon, Cruz was already an acknowledged sex symbol so she is the perfect actress to play Isabella, a talented Brazilian chef who suffers from chronic motion sickness. In her attempts to combat her condition, she tries to control motion around her as much as possible – even in the bedroom with her increasingly resentful singer husband, Toninho. Toninho cheats and Isabella flees to San Francisco to stay with her transsexual bestie Monica (Harold Perrineau) Jr.
Isabella starts teaching at a culinary academy and is lured onto a local TV station, where her delightful seafood is not the only thing the cameras are panning. Meanwhile Toninho plots to get Isabella back…
Around this time, a lot of films came out that paired food with women who don’t eat (not dessert anyway) to erotic effect. Think Juliette Binoche in Chocolat, Sarah Michelle Gellar in Simply Irresistible or even Audrey Tatou in Amélie. This may seem a sensuous move on the surface, but it doesn’t help with the suspension of disbelief this whimsical genre requires. In one scene, Penélope espouses the virtues of a chilli pepper by sniffing one – not eating. No, God forbid. Never mind the sting of chilli, the seeds of irritation have already been sewn.
There is plenty of whimsy at work here; from Yemanja the sea goddess Isabella prepares sacrifices for, to the South American serenades that seem to accompany all of Toninho’s scenes. But what really stood out was the double standard at work. The TV camera crew lingers on Isabella’s curves in a cheeky dig at exploitation and the producers dress her in ever more low-cut, clingier dresses. It’s the same devilish pact the Nigella Lawson must have signed once upon a time. Yet, later in the scene, the movie camera leads a shot with Ms Cruz’s bust in the centre of the screen and travels along a row of men’s out-of-focus reactions. That is just one moment among many unapologetic cinematic leers. The fact that this is perpetrated by a female director only adds to the confusion. If there’s a joke, not enough of us are in on it.
Despite all of the undoubted effort, this film is a muddle and hard to embrace. Not since The Taming of the Shrew has such a conundrum of personal beliefs confronted its audience. It is aimed at women (I guess) but seems to objectify them. The modest budget results in poor special effects on modern screens. And while Cruz and Perrineau deliver good performances, they cannot overcome the difficulties many modern women will feel while watching this; that we should allow ourselves to be objectified; to take back cheating lovers on equal terms even if they do not do us justice. But hell, if the sea goddess wills it…