Let me be honest. A Canadian actress named Christina Cox guest-starred in an early episode of Due South. As I often do, I checked her credits in imdb, discovering that a few years later she had starred in a 1999 film called Better than Chocolate. Further investigation established that this was a lesbian film. I was intrigued by the brief description of the film. Sometimes, the curiosity to check out a thing that’s caught your eye in passing becomes overwhelming, which is why I bought a cheap DVD copy off eBay.
And yes, continuing to be honest, I was partly attracted by the lesbian theme. But, watching the film this morning, I got more than I expected for whilst there are a couple of sex scenes, including one startlingly erotic one involving the film’s central couple body-painting each other then rolling across a canvas to create a piece of art akin to Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, these are not the point of the film, nor do they dominate it.
Instead, Better than Chocolate, it’s title taken from a Sarah McLaughlin song, is an intelligent, thoughtful, happy, romantic, frequently deliberately comic in tiny, delicious moments. It has a storyline that permeates the film, and which has some marvellous shifts to it, but it’s also a naturalistic portrayal of a mainly lesbian community, in Vancouver, that is open and clear without once being strident. I simply liked all the main cast of characters, for themselves.
Basically, Maggie (Karyn Murphy, all red curls, heart-shaped face and shy smiles) is a 19 year old drop-out from Law School working in a Lesbian bookshop, owned and run by Frances (Ann-Marie MacDonald, a noted Canadian novelist). Frances is frustrated at having a shipment of books, mostly lesbian but including Little Red Riding Hood, seized by Customs despite Supreme Court judgements that these are not obscene. Maggie’s problem is that her mother Lila (Wendy Crewson) has phoned up out of the blue, having discovered, variously, that her husband, Maggie’s stepfather, has been cheating on her for over a year, and that Maggie has dropped out. Maggie, who is bunking on a couch in the back of the shop, lies about having a big apartment and, before she can stop her, Lila has invited herself and Maggie’s 17 year old brother Paul to stay.
In this turnoil, Maggie meets Kim (Cox), an artist travelling the country in a beat-up and highly decorated van. Both actresses are wonderful here, but Murphy especially. The attraction is instant, but the pair handle the stages of growing importance to each other without words, and by their faces. Kim is the more defiantly out of the two, forward without being aggressive, Maggie clearly smitten in all senses of the word. They retire to Kim’s van, to talk, oblivious of the passing of time, until the van is hauled away, they in it, for illegal parking. Since Kim hasn’t got $125 to redeem it, she moves in with Maggie, who has sublet an apartment.
Then follows the painting scene and, of course, the ladies are in the shower, together, when Lila and Paul arrive, a day early.
The thing is, Maggie may be out to her community but she’s not out to her mother and she is desperate to postpone the evil moment as long as possible. Lila gets the bedroom, Maggie and Kim to ciuch, Paul the hall. The ladies are still in that first flush of can’t-keep-their-hands-off-each-other and it is impossible for them to have vigorous and lusty sex silently. Paul overhears (I’m surprised Montreal didn’t) and discovers his sister’s sexuality. Lilsa remains oblivious.
Let me now introduce Judy, the only cast member to have a surname, which is Squires. Judy is played by Peter Outerbridge, and no, this time the name is not a diminutive of Petronella. Judy is a pre-operative transexual, cast off by hyr parents, a gentle, thoughtful, wise and pacifist figure, who is in love with Frances, who keeps resisting him, believing herself to be primarily asexual.
Judy, having divined through Maggie’s disparaging words, that Lila must be very lonely, indeed isolated, befriends her, counsels her and, unltimately, helps her repair her relationship with her daughter. Judy is buoyed up by a first contact from hyr parents in two years, offering to buy her a condo. S/he settles on one in the new complex where Lila now works as a kind of gofer/dogsbdy/office assistant.
Lila is in some ways the central figure in the film. She doesn’t understand Maggie, whose choices are bizarre and foreign to her. She was once an opera singer but gave it up, and now derides the whole thing, because she couldn’t be the best. She is oblivious tp not just Maggie and Kim’s sexuality, but also to Judy’s true status. When Maggie finally summons up the pluck to come out to her, she doesn’t get the chance because Lila keeps interrupting her and deflecting the ‘conversation’ onto her own conservative concerns, such as her dependence upon chocolate, because, let’s face it, at her age she’s never going to have sex again.
That is, until she discovers the box of (mainly purple) electric dildoes thar belong to the apartment’s owner, who lectures on safe sex, and especially the battery-powered one that, well, wiggles. A lot of delighted laughter ensues.
Lila is happy for once. Unfortunately, that precipitates the film’s sudden descent into a chaos that threatens to destroy everything that’s come before. She makes coffee for three and takes the tray in to Maggie and Kim, who are lying on the couch entwined, wearing only their underwear. So now she knows, or at least is getting there. But Maggie has lost her temper at her mother’s constant attempts to run her life for her. When Lila asks if she loves Kim, Maggie refuses to answer. And Kim leaves, angry and hurt. She hocks her stuff, gets her van and drives off, despite Judy telling her what a mistake she’s making.
Lila runs to Judy for sympathy, only to learn his actual name is Jeremy. Believing that hyr parents were reconciling to who and what s/he was, Judy had invited them to stay. Their letter not only refuses him but males it plain that the condo was a Kiss-Off, payment to go away and let them pretend s/he never exists.
Meanwhile, Maggie is distraught, Kim’s trying to call her from the road without success, Frances gets tipped off that she’s going to be raided and all her videos seized as obscene and Maggie loses her rag and on an if-they-want-obscene flare, sets herself up in the shop ewindow as an art display, naked but for two signs, one hung across her breasts proclaiming ‘Obscene Lesbian’ and the other across her loins proclaiming pervert.
Frances immediately calls the Press. But whilst she’s gone, a group of skinheads, who’ve alrady hassled Maggie near the film’s beginning, see her and start being menacing, shouting ‘Dyke’. The arrival of Lila and Judy, the former desperate to get some clothes on her daughter, sends them packing but they return, throwing fire-sticks through the window. Which, as Tony the cafe owner next door is trying to cowboy connect a new gas cooker, results in an explosion.
And then it suddenly all goes well again, in a fashion that, naturalistically, is too abrupt abd comprehensive to be realistic but what the hell? The film’s long since absorbed us in an optimistic glow that it was in danger of destroying by allowing hatred, anger and intolerance to interfere, and a reset back to the warmth is most welcome. Lila and Maggie accpet each other. Frances finally decides she loves Judy. Kim comes back.
And we exit on an American Graffitti style montage, telling us what happened to everyone after that, and some long credits, and that wrapped up a film that I thoroughly enjoyed. Yes, it was lesbian cinema, and as such I was, on many levels exvluded from it, not being a part of the culture it depicted, which felt whole and entire. In its own way, it was like watching anime: I have no native instincts for the subject. But the film offered a wide window and did not seek to exclude, and it did the one thing all films ought to do but so few bother, it showed its characters as people, first and last and foremost. I’d recommend it to anyone.