The sweet, underrated magic realist film Woman On Top is probably best known for the image of Penelope Cruz associated with it: a sultry gaze at the camera, a bright chilly poised tantalizingly close to her lips. Yes, we get it: food is sexy, sexy, sexy – this philosophy is thrown at us in everything from advertising that uses the suggestive forms of fruits to imply other ripeness to the lust and aggression that propel cooking-based reality shows. And it is, of course. Sexy, that is. Hunger, in both its desiring and satiating stages, is just as physical as sex. But food is also equally as psychological and – let’s just say it – equally as emotional.
In life as in cinema, there are piners and there are bingers. Food is emotional not just because, paired as it is with the supreme mnemonic of smell, it is full of memories and rituals (the ritual of a family meal, a first date, the food associated with occasions), but also because our relationship with it is affected by our relationships with other people. Some people, arguably, sublimate the sex drive into the appetite, giving rise to the erotically charged sequences of the also magical Like Water For Chocolate, in which a family’s youngest daughter, by decree of tradition, must remain unmarried and take care of her parents – which results in a recipe of forbidden lust, envy and voodoo victuals. Some use it to enhance their erotic lives, as in Tampopo’s use of an unbroken egg yolk in a tricky kiss or the ubiquitous Chocolat, in which a beautifully androgynous Johnny Depp is seduced by a maker of that most famous aphrodisiac of all. In Chungking Express, a brokenhearted Takeshi Kaneshiro compulsively devours canned pineapples, having decided that on the date on which his stockpile expires, he will either have been reunited with his love, or lost her forever.
The converse is also true – the master chef patriarch of Eat Drink Man Woman loses his sense of taste, until he is able to make peace with his widowering and his daughters’ lives. The same goes for Tortilla Soup, a Mexican-American remake of the Taiwanese original. Food is identifiably cultural, but responses to it are identifiably universal.
Of course, sometimes craving is uncomplicated. Who can forget modern cinema’s most iconic food-sex parallel: when a virginal high school senior is caught making sweet, sweet love to a pastry in American Pie? Or even Jamón Jamón, which first paired Cruz with Javier Bardem, in which a pork-loving delivery boy turns gigolo against a backdrop of cured meats, double entendres and even a soda-can wedding ring.
Drinking, strangely, seems to have has less cinema devoted to its pleasures, but the likes of Sideways, Bottle Shock, Autumn Tale and A Walk in the Clouds certainly do justice to the wonderful world of wineries. For those on diets of two highly-compatible vices, Coffee and Cigarettes brings the triumvirate to a neat convergence with the third C: conversation (the fourth, cancer, I’ll leave to preachier types).
Which brings us back to why Woman On Top is underrated. Quirkily spiritual and hopelessly romantic, Cruz’s domestic goddess cannot help but long for her philandering husband. Her otherworldly culinary skills are muffled in her loneliness. What’s more important – the meal or who it’s shared with?
It’s not always the saccharine answer that’s the best one. The way to a man’s heart, the saying goes, is through his stomach. But all goddesses are gluttons, and for many of us, our hearts are our stomachs. And in heartache and in heartburn, we’ll take good care of them.
An edited version appeared in Times of India’s IDiva supplement today. A previous guest column in this supplement can be read here.