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In their ongoing obsessions with sex and violence, filmmakers have largely neglected a subject that unites moviegoers of every age and culture—food. Few of us, not even hookers or hit men, indulge in carnality or mayhem as frequently as eating. People can’t even sit through a movie without stuffing their faces with a variety of comestibles, ranging, depending on the venue, from the traditional popcorn, soda, and candy to chili dogs, nachos, and sushi.

A treatise on film and food would require only a few chapters. Several titles instantly spring to mind: the Oscar-winning Babette’s Feast, the Japanese noodle-shop satire Tampopo, the Mexican romance Like Water for Chocolate, the comic mystery Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, and La Grande Bouffe, in which a quartet of middle-aged men gorge themselves to death. Beyond these, there are some classic eating sequences: Tom Jones’ dinner-table foreplay; the botched gourmet meals that Vivien Merchant serves to her dyspeptic inspector-husband in Hitchcock’s Frenzy; the swinish Mr. Creosote, who eats until he explodes in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life; and, above all, the dazzlingly inventive, hourlong restaurant scene in Jacques Tati’s little-known masterpiece Playtime. But I can think of only one director for whom food is a constant theme: Not only do Claude Chabrol’s films contain recurrent dining scenes, but he’s admitted that his choice of locations depends on the quality of the regional cuisine.

Food plays a key role in Fina Torres’ Woman on Top. Like a soufflé, the film is flavorful and airy, even though it deflates in its closing reels. Isabella (Penélope Cruz), the Brazilian heroine of Vera Blasi’s magical-realist screenplay, is blessed with enchanting beauty and the gift of creating supernal cuisine. Her sole affliction is motion sickness. When driving, dancing, or making love, she must be in control or else she suffers bouts of nausea.

Isabella falls for and marries Toninho (Murilo Benício), a handsome musician-restaurateur. While he serenades his customers and accepts their plaudits for his successful establishment’s cuisine, she labors in the kitchen without recognition. His macho ego wounded by always being forced to assume a supine sex position, Toninho has a fling with a neighbor. Isabella catches him and, enraged, flies off to San Francisco, where she’s welcomed by her childhood friend Monica (Harold Perrineau Jr.), a saucy, warmhearted transvestite.

Isabella’s initial attempts to seek employment as a chef prove fruitless. To exorcise her longing for Toninho, she makes an offering to Yemanja, the goddess of the sea. Thus liberated, she secures a job as an instructor at a culinary school, where she attracts the attention of Cliff (Mark Feuerstein), a young television producer. Bewitched by her looks and talent, he hires her to star in a local cooking show. Passion Food Live becomes an overnight sensation. Meanwhile, with his restaurant collapsing, Toninho, accompanied by a band of Bahian musicians, follows Isabella to San Francisco, where he vies with Cliff for her affections. Torn between the two men and badgered by network executives to suppress her natural exuberance for a prospective nationwide show, Isabella once again turns to Yemanja to resolve her predicaments.

As light and frothy as a vintage musical, Woman on Top offers more than enough glamour and charm to compensate for its lack of substance. Madrid-born Cruz not only bedazzles the entire heterosexual male population of San Francisco, who follow her through the streets wherever she goes, but casts a spell on the audience as well. With the slim voluptuousness of young Rita Hayworth and the uncloying winsomeness of Audrey Hepburn, the actress appears unaffected, even surprised and amused, by her own allure. Her delicious handling of the cooking-class sequences—a lecture on the special properties of various chili peppers, a demonstration of the preparation of shrimp in fresh coconut milk—proves to be every bit as enticing as her lovemaking scenes. With two Pedro Almodóvar movies and the Oscar-winning Belle Epoque behind her, and roles opposite Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, and Nicolas Cage in the pipeline, she’s a surefire bet for international stardom. Her fellow cast members perform capably but are overshadowed by Cruz’s radiance.

Visually and aurally, Woman on Top provides an assortment of intoxications. Thierry Arbogast’s cinematography yields bejeweled images ideally suited for a fairy-tale movie that opens with the words “Once upon a time….” (In a magical touch, one of Isabella’s tears drops onto a rosebud, which instantly bursts into full bloom.) The soundtrack pulsates with traditional and contemporary Brazilian sambas. Paulinho Moska, a subtle singer in the tradition of João Gilberto, dubs Benício’s vocal sequences. His performances, supplemented by tracks by Dori Caymmi, Baden Powell, and other musicians, make the film’s soundtrack CD an essential purchase.

Although Woman on Top is enjoyable, it’s a work of little consequence. Torres and Blasi take pains not to transgress prevailing feminist, multicultural, and pansexual orthodoxies, and what pass for ideas in their movie—like the assertion that no power can defeat True Love—are excessively Pollyannaish, even in this fanciful context. The plot runs low on comic invention at the end of its first hour, and, if I had my druthers, I’d issue a 10-year moratorium on that tiresome contemporary screen cliché of the earthy, tenderhearted drag-queen best friend. But sometimes even movie reviewers have to suspend their puritanism and submit to the sensuous pleasures of a stylishly crafted caprice like Woman on Top. All too soon, another harrowing film about slavery or the Holocaust will turn up to engage our consciences and plunge us back into misery.

When new releases are not screened for the press before opening day—Autumn in New York, to cite a recent example—it usually signals that distributors have decided to cut their losses and get their films into theaters before critics can savage them. Such is not the case with Circus, the English black-comic thriller that slipped into town last week like a nanny without a green card—and could well be deported by the time you read this.

Like Quentin Tarantino, screenwriter David Logan worked in a video store, so it’s not surprising that his script is sprinkled with allusions to film classics (among them, The Lady From Shanghai and Sweet Smell of Success) and overflows with the callous, movie-brat farcical violence that informs Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Set in Brighton, Logan’s home for more than 20 years, Circus features the least summarizable plot of any movie I can recall. Its double, triple, and quadruple crosses make The Big Sleep, whose story line director Howard Hawks and scripter William Faulkner admitted they could not fathom, seem as simplistic as Rocky.

Short of viewing Circus a half-dozen more times and devoting an entire issue of this paper to detailing its twists and turns, the best I can do is list its characters. Con artists Leo (John Hannah) and his wife, Lily (Famke Janssen), plan one final scam before abandoning criminality and escaping to Cuba. To achieve this goal, they have to outwit Bruno (Brian Conley), a malevolent mobster; Julius (Peter Stormare), a nerdy, double-dealing accountant; Moose (Tiny Lister), Bruno’s powerfully built henchman; Troy (Eddie Izzard), a sadistic loan shark; and Elmo (Fred Ward), Lily’s vengeful former lover. Keeping track of these clowns’ labyrinthine schemes to outmaneuver each other is as dizzying (and often as exhilarating) as following the simultaneous acts in a three-ring circus.

Director Rob Walker keeps the action moving like a runaway train and makes evocative use of Brighton, the seaside resort that provided the setting for the memorably melancholy climax of Mona Lisa. James Merifield transcends realism in his production designs for Leo and Lily’s stylized apartment (they sleep and make love in a boat suspended from the ceiling) and Bruno’s lavish house, decorated in garish colors and filled with athletic equipment, including an automatic treadmill that he uses to exercise his pet pit bull.

Crammed with gratuitously nasty touches—including the killing of a crime underling who speaks with the aid of a larynx amplifier, a pretty young hotel desk clerk who volunteers to suck Elmo off for 25 quid, and a bloodbath intercut with a nightclub chanteuse’s version of “That’s Life”—Circus is Joe Lieberman’s worst nightmare. I recommend it, as my late Uncle Manuel used to say, “for them what likes that sort of thing,” and as an acrid antidote to the sugary Woman on Top. CP