Better Than Chocolate (Canada, 1999) ***
Directed by Anne Wheeler. Written by Peggy Thomson. Photography, Gregory Middleton. Editing, Alison Grace. Music Graeme Coleman. Production design, David Roberts. Produced by Sharon McGowan and Peggy Thomson. Cast: Wendy Crewson (Lila), Karyn Dwyer (Maggie), Christina Cox (Kim), Ann-Marie MacDonald (Frances), Marya Delver (Carla), Kevin Mundy (Paul), Peter Outerbridge (Judy/Jeremy) et al. A Trimark Pictures release. 103 minutes. Not rated (sex but not objectionable to sophisticated adults)
Last week I saw Trick, a gay (merry) gay (sexually) movie. This week I saw the lesbian romantic comedy Better Than Chocolate. I keep no statistics on film genres, but it would seem that same-sex light fare is on the increase.
No doubt, any growing genre entails the creation of its own types of cliches. Even the so-called "independent" movies develop formulas. But in the case of gay-lesbian ones, it is rather nice to see cinema widening its scope--especially when this is done with total un-selfconciousness. If you think of those works as dealing with minorities, they could even help to get pictures out of the rut of older, mainstream types, by encouraging the making of movies about other minorities: vegetarians, atheists, Southern Democrats, well-paid teachers, efficient administrators, watchers of good TV, good spellers, people who use "whom" instead of "who, " foreign-movie buffs, and so on. What a reservoir of fresh subjects!
The Canadian Better Than Chocolate is a light, zippy situation-yarn which won the top prize at the latest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in London. Actually, it is not very exciting, yet it's not dull either, and it has its own charm.
Set in a lesbian milieu of Vancouver, its major focus is on Maggie and Kim . Maggie is a 19-year old college drop-out, who wants to be a writer and live "real life. " She is cute. ( I like this word; it means something special and has no precise equivalent in any other language I know). By day she works in the lesbian Ten Percent Bookstore. By night she performs (regularly or not, it's unclear) at a lesbian club.
Maggie meets the somewhat older Kim, an itinerant artist whose drawings and body-painting are not bad at all. Kim lives in her van. For the two girls it's love at first sight. A quick first attempt at physical consummation takes place inside the van. It is interrupted, to their bewilderment (and laughter) as the illegally parked vehicle gets hauled away to the pound. Good gag.
Maggie, on the phone Lila, her mother, learns that she is divorcing Maggie's stepfather as that man has been sleeping for a year with a younger woman, his partner's wife I believe, but I can't guarantee this. Lila, in her upheaval, hears from Maggie that she's not in school, but makes no fuss. Instead, she announces that she's coming all the way from the distant East of the United States, with Paul (17 or so), Maggie's hunkish brother. They will stay (temporarily, I suppose) with Maggie.
Metaphorically speaking, trumpets blare and drums beat as Maggie, who sleeps in the bookstore and has not fessed up her sexual preferences to Mom, rushes to find a place to live in "en famille, " which would also include "housemate" Kim. From a lesbian lady, she rents, for a short time, a large and rather shoddy loft.
Mom and Brother show up. A charade familiar from hetero-films gets going. Lila is ditzy and likable. She neither perceives nor is told by Maggie of the latter's sex choices. (But on his first morning there, Brother catches the girls making love. He takes it with cool and naturalness). Semi-complications ensue. These also involve 30-plus Judy who is also Jeremy, a transsexual in every way except that, if I got this right, he hasn't yet had The Operation. He/she is very simpatico and strikes a frienship with Mom, who has no clue about "her" being a man.
Later at the club Judy performs the song "I'm not a f. . . drag queen" well and with brio. But how I missed having a youngish Marlene Dietrich doing it! There's also a trio of day-glo/black light singers who do a lively homage to Julie Christie. (I'll have to find out more about her).
There are several small felicities, side events and mini-subplots : the Customs impound a shipment of porno (?) books from the United States; Judy "outs" her secret love for Frances, the bookstore's shy, spinsterish owner; Lila stumbles onto a stash of the loft-owner's sex toys and happily experiments with them; Paul gets panting sex going with the bookstore's pansexual employee: etc. etc.
The un-rated movie's sex scenes are pretty steamy-hot but ought not to annoy a savvy public. The younger actresses are convincing but no more. Peter Outerbridge (as Judy) is very good in moods that mix or alternate pathos and sophistication. Wendy Crewson (as Lila) all but steals the show.
The rub comes in some ways that make the film shaky. The characters, beyond functioning as servants to the plot, have really no dimension, personality or character. Maggie's efforts to hide her sexual nature from Mom are pretty inexplicable, since Lila seems to be receptive. And Lila's blitheness or blindness to what is obvious is overdone.
The latter weakness could have been taken care of by clues that Lila is so involved in her own problems thats she can't see the woods for the trees; and/or by having her get it but pretend she does not; or by refusing to admit it. Too bad, since Ms Crewson (about whom I know nothing, given the lack of press information) is such a colorful and dynamic performer.
The film's title comes from a Sarah McLachlan song, "ice cream. " Lila spells it out : she is a secret chocolate-junkie. At some point she declares to the young ones, with her habitual candor and directness: "Since I probably won't ever have sex again, chocolate is the only pleasure left me. " (That was before she discovered the sex gagdgets).
Let's not get too serious, however. There are side-isssues and subtexts about valid, serious matters, but the movie is primarily pleasant, good-humored, high-energy fluff.