Ever have that problem of watching a love story unfold in a film where the movie clearly wants you to want the characters to end up together…but you really, really don’t? My headline, admittedly, is something of an exaggeration. As I reassuringly explained to a friend who ranks Like Water for Chocolate as one of his Top 10 favorite films of all time, I found a lot to like—nay, a lot to love—about director Alfonso Arau’s lusciously-imagined adaptation of the 1989 novel by Laura Esquivel.
Making an appointment to see the film had simply slipped away from me ever since it became an object of cultish adoration upon its theatrical run in 1992. Its appearance on Blu-ray pushed me over the edge and I decided to roll the dice and add it to the home library, sight unseen; it seemed like the kind of movie I was probably going to love, especially after I’d been reminded that it trafficked in the literary realm of “magical realism.” I’m a big fan of works that successfully mix the otherworldly into the ordinary, creating believable worlds where the two exist very naturally side by side.
Like Water for Chocolate does not disappoint in that regard, making admirably grand gestures in that tradition.
The notion that a woman’s tear dripping into batter could cause the resulting dish to bring forth crying jags from everyone who eats it; melancholy that causes the heroine to knit a blanket that seems to stretch on for miles; the possibility that swallowing an entire book of matches—rather than indulging in the typical post-coital cliché of smoking—could result in a person’s spontaneous combustion.
Some viewers might find these sorts of fantastical conceits alienating and impossible to digest in a movie otherwise rooted in a simple story about forbidden love, but because I knew that this particular film’s charms had already managed to entice a wide range of viewers, I was eager to discover how such a tricky approach could be so successful with the mainstream.
And I was “with” the movie just fine in the early going. I felt those ridiculous strictures of “tradition”—as mainly embodied in perhaps one of cinema’s most hateful mothers—wrongly thwarting the passions being generated by the classic love-at-first-sight couple Tita (Lumi Cavazos) and Pedro (Marco Leonardi) so that Tita would remain unmarried to care for her domineering parent “until she dies.” But from that very first decision Pedro makes to marry Tita’s older sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi) so that he can remain in the family’s presence, and have at least some clandestine access to Tita’s company…I felt the first twinges of disapproval for where the story was headed.
Don’t get me wrong. I am fully aware that the trajectory of any tragic drama or romance requires that characters make “bad” or “wrong” decisions in order to advance such a plot. The most concise way for me to sum up my disappointment with the storyline in the film (and perhaps in the book, which I’ve not read but am now very curious about) is that, once Pedro and Tita start down this path, they didn’t even seem so determined in my eyes to work around their obstacles to be together. As I recall (hazily, with some distance now from my viewing of the film), the script doesn’t even spend that much time showing the two scheming to meet up, or fraught with anxieties over the fallout their actions create for others.
And they become progressively more unlikable as the story goes on. Pedro, by the end, is rejecting his wife’s affections because pregnancy made her too heavy to be appealing to him—and, “ha ha,” she has a problem with gas. Tita eventually experiences a breakdown, and is dispatched to the care of a doctor (Mario Iván Martínez) she grows to love and decides to marry. And yes, Pedro and Tita’s desire for one another burns so brightly that, even years—and I mean years—later, they’re prepared to cast aside any obligations they may have to others in order to proceed to the lovemaking bed.
And then Tita eats the matches.
I “get” the mechanics of Like Water for Chocolate. But damned if I didn’t grow to dislike both main characters more and more as the story went on, hoping against hope they’d both redeem themselves…by not getting together. The end of the film—which you have a sense of in terms of its inevitability long before the flamboyant climax (ahem) actually arrives—is appropriately rich with magical symbolism. But it confounds me. I shake my head with frustration rather than feel empathic sadness for this powerful love that holds Pedro and Tita in its thrall. I find myself thinking serves you right so much more than oh, the awful sweetness of souls forever entwined. And I’m pretty sure that’s not the intended design of the story, the intended impact of the movie.
I did wind up liking exactly one character a lot: the sister who fully embraced her lusts and ran off to become a revolutionary. I wanted to see more of that life onscreen.
My intent is to eventually have a second look at the film (since I own it!) and make some time for the book, which I’m told is not such a hefty read. After permitting the mopey dejection I experienced with Like Water for Chocolate to fully dissipate, I sat down to spend time again with a couple I felt better positioned to embody the concept of seriously twisted, magnificently damaged and doomed love: Dottie and Joe Cooper from Killer Joe.
Now there’s an ending that tugs at the heartstrings.
Ever watched a movie where the film “wants” the couple to be together…and you don’t? Tell me about it in the comments. Tell me why I’m wrong about Like Water for Chocolate. Complain to me after you’ve watched Killer Joe. (On second thought, scratch that last invitation. I love that William Friedkin movie just too much to entertain naysayers.)