Altogether Not Altogether
As anyone who watches HBO’s Oz will tell you, Harold Perrineau is a most excellent narrator: his language is elegant, and his subject matter ranges from miserable to mean to raucous: he is, after all, describing daily life in a fictional prison unit, where inmates have much rage, little space, and all kinds of desire. His silky voice is incongruously seductive while describing the most heinous acts of violence, creating a delicate balance between your sympathy and revulsion. And so, when you hear him speaking over the top of a fanciful rendition of the song “Brazil” and gorgeous South American beaches at the start of Woman on Top, it’s sweet and familiar, but perhaps just the slightest bit alarming. Such discomfort will likely be fleeting, however: it’s hard to resist Perrineau’s vocal charms, especially when he begins, so very quaintly, “Once upon a time…”
The story he tells here is lush and lovely, concerning a young Brazilian maiden’s lover for her adorable and studly man. Or something like that. Fina Torres’s scrumptious-diddliumptious romantic comedy begins at a point which suggests this fairy tale has already come to its end: Isabella (Penelope Cruz) live happily with her husband Toninho (Murilo Benicio) in the idyllic coastal town of Bahia. That is, she thinks she lives happily: she spends her days cooking in their busy restaurant’s kitchen and her nights in sexual passion, aided by chili peppers and other sensory delights. The two swear eternal devotion to one another, so perfectly matched are they in every way, except one. Isabella suffers from severe motion sickness, which she can alleviate only by feeling in control of all events which involve movement: so, she always has to drive and, distressingly for her conservative husband, she always has to be on top during sex. It isn’t long before Toninho just can’t, um, stand it anymore, and has a fling with another woman, one who allows him to be on top. “I’m a man!”’ he tells his heartbroken wife, by way of explanation. But Isabella is not appeased. She prays to Yemanja, the occasionally stormy Goddess of the Sea, to grant her freedom from her endless love for Toninho, packs her bags, and heads off to San Francisco, where she moves in with her dear childhood friend, a transvestite (and, you learn here, the narrator) named Monica (Perrineau, who, aside from narrating Oz, played Mercutio in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which granted him some brief drag experience). Isabella and Monica’s reunion is bittersweet, since Isabella is understandably smarting from her recent traumas (the breakup and the nauseating plane ride). Deciding that she must boost her friend’s bruised ego, Monica turns Isabella into her personal project, counseling her on new career choices, outfits, and men. The irony of this situation is no small thing: to be sure, Perrineau makes an exceedingly beautiful woman, but Isabella… well, she’s Penelope Cruz. And yet, Isabella’s temporary “despair” her inability to “get” or “keep” a man because she needs to be “on top” is the film’s fundamental fantasy. If you buy that, you’re ready for the rest of its giddiness.
Soon enough, and only partly because she listens to Monica, Isabella is on her way to professional success and amorous bliss, courtesy of a cinematic spin on magical realism, resembling the love potion business in Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate (1992). One of Isabella’s dishes when mixed with a drop of her precious perspiration, or maybe it’s a tear is so overwhelmingly delicious that its aroma wafts visibly out the window and attracts every man on the street, and a few who happen to have their apartment windows open. In less than a minute, a veritable army of zombie-men is following lovely Isabella to her new job, as a cooking institute instructor (a scene featuring the mandatory lips-neck-fingertip close-ups as she warns her breathless students, “When you work with chilis, remember to coat your fingers with oil, so your skin won’t burn”). One of these salivating minions, Cliff (Mark Feuerstein), is introduced as a stereotypically slick local tv producer (though knowing the delightful Isabella will change him forever). Looking to make money and time with his new discovery, he signs her to host a daily cooking show. Gloriously costumed (by Monica) and perfectly glistening under the studio lights, Isabella instantly achieves miraculous ratings. As if on cue, the philandering husband arrives from Brazil with a backup band in order to win back his woman, serenading under her balcony, intruding on her set and her budding romance with Cliff. When Cliff’s superiors conclude that Toninho’s background crooning during the show is an asset to the ratings, tensions arise. And yes, humorous and sexual situations ensue.
On most counts, Woman on Top doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: a delectable love story and vehicle for a charismatic rising star, and Cruz so stunning, as a nun, amid many more spectacular characters in Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother is as radiant a rising star as you’re likely to see in this lifetime, sensuous and dewy-new-seeming, like a pre-primadonna Julia Roberts. She lights up the screen when she’s on it, even when mediated as a tv image or a billboard. This use of television and celebrity is, in fact, the film’s most provocative spin on its otherwise standard-issue romance, in that it refracts Isabella’s tribulations through a medium which makes them at once superficial and significant, and turns her into a commercial emblem of ideal womanhood made available to a constantly craving audience. Or better, an audience whose appetites are shaped by precisely what is available, namely, Isabella, the most luscious consumable object imaginable.
To underline this Isabella’s irresistibility, the movie makes a preternaturally alluring but traditionally minded child-woman, so that she eventually resembles the currently fashionable “post-feminist” heroine, not so irksome as Ally McBeal but sharing a few too many of that character’s concerns about getting married and refining her feminine wiliness. It’s an obvious convention that Isabella spends all her waking hours (and some dreaming ones as well) trying to map her best route to some man’s heart, which would be through his stomach, etc. But it’s not a very interesting convention. And so, after Woman on Top cleverly showcases television as a system of representation and exploitation, it then backs off, content to blame any medium-related problems on a few individual villains. The cooking show’s incredible success brings on the network suits, who impose changes in format and costume in an effort to appeal to “Middle America.” All too predictably, their decision to dress their Naturally Exuberant And Exotic Other in a high fashion ensemble is precisely the wrong thing to do (and, incidentally, contrary to Monica’s wise advice). Finally, she rebels. But not too much: as the exemplary romantic heroine, she is rather fated to end up with her ideal mate.
And what of the one character who most obviously has somewhere else to go? What of Monica? She is, unhappily, repeatedly reduced to the Queer Best Friend, the entertaining relationship expert who has no relationship of her own and doesn’t fret about it either, feeling vicariously fulfilled by Isabella’s pleasure. At one point, Cliff calls on Monica for advice, which she offers while dressed only in her sexiest, sleekest underwear, or, as she terms it, she’s a “girl in her altogether not altogether.” The missed opportunities here abound. This isn’t to say that Monica isn’t a fully compelling and extraordinary character, that Perrineau isn’t wholly seductive and lovely in the role. But, where Isabella feasts, Monica has leftovers. And it’s on you to imagine that alternate universe where Monica might be on top.