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The premise of Louise J. Kaplan’s book, Female Perversions, is that women’s dependence on stereotypically feminine behavior and signifiers is actually a pathology. Extrapolated, she argues that intensely feminine women are psychotic.
Now, one could make the case that ultrafemininity is culturally acquired behavior and that women who fetishize it are the products of an oppressive social system designed to waste women’s inner resources and whittle their concerns down to frivolous trivialities. (This, in fact, is one aspect of Kaplan’s case, and the only distinctly provable, if not very original, one.) Marxists could claim that such behavior is the result of patriarchal capitalism and could point out that women who endorse commodity culture to that degree become commodities themselves. The cultural and social trappings of femininity are by nature extrinsic, but there are such things as men and women, and even if we use false definitions of that distinction to create a culture of oppression, that doesn’t mean the distinction itself does not exist, or isn’t worth exploring. But for some, complaining about the trappings is easier.
Kaplan’s argument is so extreme, so conspicuously provocative, that it undoes its own intentions. Like the defensive rants of feminist bozo Camille Paglia, the theory of Female Perversions is so exaggerated it betrays a mistrust of its own premise. It is a bad thing that Western culture encourages women to imagine themselves Barbie dolls; to say that women who do so are actually insane is unnecessary, absurd, and diminishing. It makes laughingstocks of big-brain feminists in general, and it sets back the agendas of every working mom who wants to make more than 60 cents on the male dollar. Worst, it presumesas does so much so-called feminist theorythat women are empty vessels into which an oppressive society pours neuroses.
And another thing: Who says that perversions, if they harm no one except those who elect to be harmed, are bad?
Susan Streitfeld’s crystalline, dreamlike, totally unconvincing movie based loosely on this book stacks the deck in favor of psychosis, dangerous and destructive, then backs away. Eve Stephens (Tilda Swinton) is a slender, sensual yet businesslike prosecutor in perfect ice-colored suits whose expertise in the girly arts has earned her an offer of a judgeship. Her male lover is a handsome architect (Clancy Brown), her female lover an earthy psychiatrist (Karen Sillas). Eve is a master manipulator of the male gaze, and her skill seems, from a long, hectoring scene in which judge, lawyer, and bailiff tune out her summation while trying to sneak peeks down her blouse, to win cases. She cannot make love without imagining herself in a handsome rock-video scenario, bound, suspended, and watched over by similarly swaddled angel figures; a radioactively glowing cross-shaped pool and larger-than-life chess figures also make cameos. A subplot about a new lipstick color has her near hysteria. She parades around a boutique in a too-small teddy to drown out the voice telling her she’s fat. She does the Cosmo quiz in her office while popping M&M’s.
All the women are self-made stereotypes, crazed with femininity. Eve’s sister, Madelyn (Amy Madigan), a tired-looking kleptomaniac who steals garter belts and frilly baby clothes, resents Eve for her seeming perfection. Madelyn’s housemate, Emma (Laila Robins), is a frantically feminine young spinster who sews wedding dresses and reads S&M fiction while cocooned in a Laura Ashley holocaust of lace and frills. Emma’s daughter is a sullen 13-year-old going through an angry butch phase; Emma’s friend, a voluptuous stripper named Annunciata (Frances Fisher), encourages the girls to “become generic” to please men sexually. “Archetypal,” Emma murmurs from the depths of her flouncy couch.
The source of Eve and Madelyn’s insanity, of course, is Daddy. He’s cold and distant, grumpy when Eve calls him in the middle of the night, dismissive of Madelyn’s good news. (She’s earned her Ph.D., presumably in Female Perversion. Her thesis is about a matriarchal jungle society; the women are in charge, but as Eve points out, they’re all fat.) His sexual rejection of their mother may have led to her death, so his daughters learned that coming on to a man has dire consequences.
It is perhaps a measure of the impossibility of sustaining the book’s premise, that Streitfeld ends up making such dull excuses for the characters’ hang-ups. She does dabble with the charge that Eve, at least, is complicit in her bondage, but for the most part her neuroses are ordinary. She fears being exposed as a fraud, as do we all; she feels competitive with younger, more beautiful and accomplished rivals; she uses her sexuality to seek outside validation when she is feeling insecure. Various Barbara Krugerlike slogans appear in unlikely placesbus benches, across television screensbut they aren’t as illuminating or provocative as their cutesy postmodern settings would indicate. The first one reads, “Perversions are never what they seem to be.” But in this post-Freudian age, of course they are. What Streitfeld doesn’t answer is what defines perversions and whether their necessity”Perversion is a strategy,” Kaplan saysis so terrible.
Many directors have found it possible to use the inherently cool medium of film to explore the science and art of gastronomy, with little loss of heat. “Food movies” are a newish phenomenon, but whether the cuisine is Italian (Big Night), Chinese (Eat Drink Man Woman), Mexican (Like Water for Chocolate), Japanese (Tampopo) or French (Babette’s Feast), the films tend to attract the same American audience. Even the stories share a moodromantic, sometimes sentimental, with oversize emotions both expressed and subsumed by the characters’ love for food.
The Georgian-French production A Chef in Love strives to join the ranks of these films, but, as in love with love as it is, nothing in the movie seems to care much about food. The main story, told in flashback, is framed by that of Anton Gogoladze (Jean-Yves Gautier), a Georgian art gallery owner living in France. A French food photographer, Marcelle (Micheline Presle), brings him a detailed and passionate diary of the early life of the great French epicure Pascal Ichac and his involvement with a beautiful Georgian princess. Marcelle is the gourmand’s niece, and she wants Anton to translate the manuscript, knowing that he will take a personal interest in its contents.
Flashbacks show that the birdlike, free-spirited beauty Pascal meets on a train in 1920 and spends heedless years of love and sybaritic indulgence with will become the wife of a tyrannical communist soldier and, eventually, Anton’s mother. The graying Pascal (Pierre Richard) and his supple young Princess Cecilia (Nino Kirtadze) travel around Georgia, tasting everything, drinking good wine, and eventually saving the life of the Georgian president thanks to Pascal’s supersensitive nose. The president makes it possible for them to open an opulent restaurant in Tbilisi, but when the revolution comes, it moves right in, banishing the chef to the attic and seducing his young lover away from their decadent lifestyle.
Unable to quash his lively interest in food, Pascal sends directives to the illiterate novice chef who now does the army’s cooking. Cecilia compiles these recipes to serve as a sort of metaphorical memory of her ex-lover, and they become the bible of Georgian cooking, providing a beacon in the household of young Anton and the spur to his father’s homicidal jealousy.
A Chef in Love is delicious to look at, with sharp, color-saturated interiors and lovingly photographed landscape idylls, but it teaches you nothing about Georgian cuisine. When Pascal is asked by a proud headwaiter to guess what’s in the specialty of the house, a confusing tasting ensues (nutmeg, red chili, and bear liver?), during which we never see the dish. The couple picks at a bad meal in a country inn, complaining that what the owners claim to be pig is not, but again, the plates are out of view. They don’t talk about food with foodies’ rapture, and there doesn’t seem to be anything grown in Georgia you couldn’t find in, say, France. When Pascal opens his restaurant, there’s a lingering shot of a laden table, and it’s a bore, the menu from the annual FAA staff party provided by a midpriced caterer: roast turkey; tiny hens or squab, also roasted; a pale planked salmon covered in aspic; a gilded wedding cake; croquembouche…
Except for the central lovers, whose relatively simple job is to act as the film’s life force, the characters are cardboard cutouts. The revolutionaries are cruel, gross, and pleasure-hating; there’s even one example of that popular bugaboo, the predatory lesbian. There’s too much peasant frolicking, hearty tankard-raising, and dancing around while brandishing kebab skewers to take this movie seriously as a loving endorsement of Georgian culture. It is supposed to be a tribute that a gourmand from (of all places) France would devote his life and career to that small, overlooked part of the world, but it instead seems to be a necessary act of gastronomic imperialism: Those charming but unsophisticated country folk need someone from a real culture to literally write the book on their cuisine.CP