Strawberry and Chocolate

Fresa y Chocolate, Thomas Gutiérrez Alea & Juan Carlos Tabio, Cuba, 1994)


Strawberry and Chocolate is a Cuban movie that has arrived on Australian shores with a lot of acclaim. It's directed by one of the most famous artists of Cuban cinema, Thomas Gutiérrez Alea, although ill health forced him to partly work through a proxy director, Juan Carlos Tabio. I was shocked by the artless banality of this movie. It's a political soap opera. David, an obedient young Communist of the early '80s, lives and studies for the revolution. One day, eating ice cream, he is cruised by a flamboyant queen, Diego. Diego is different in every way: he's gay, he's religious, he's sentimental, he loves melancholic music and extravagant surrealist literature. David is interested in Diego and all he represents, but also very wary. He keeps defending the holy word of Marx and Castro. But he cannot deny forever the evidence of the Communist oppression of homosexuals like Diego. David is at last on the road to becoming more tolerant, more open, more democratic. His turning point comes when he sees his reflection in a shop window and asks himself: "Am I becoming a son of a bitch?"

Strawberry and Chocolate is a film that makes me grapple with my own 'political correctness'. Since political correctness – PC for short – remains one of the most used and abused buzzwords in the mass media at present, I better clarify immediately what I mean by it, and why I'm grappling with it. I've come to believe that there are two kinds of political correctness – a good PC, and a bad PC. When political correctness means standing up for people's rights, when it means defending the claims of minority groups, for the various oppressed sectors of our society – well, then I say, hooray for political correctness. OK, that's the good PC. Where PC can turn bad is when it becomes a new kind of iron clad rule book, when it tries to stipulate exactly how women or gays or blacks or whomever should be depicted on screen. PC at its worst is a kind of content code. I find myself bristling when I hear people saying, for instance, that films simply shouldn't have reactionary stereotypes in them anymore. You just shouldn't show women who are complicit in their victimisation (like the women in Mike Leigh's film Naked, 1993). You just shouldn't have gays on screen who are perverted and murderous (like the killer in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, 1991). And you should just steer absolutely clear of racist gags like the big one in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994) where Bill Hunter's hysterical Filipino bride blows eggs out of her vagina before a whopping crowd of Ockers. Now, I think anyone can validly take great exception to any of these images of women or gays or Asians. And I think everyone should be given space to argue their critique in public. But if we ever find ourselves getting too moralistic and prescriptive on these questions – if we find ourselves wanting to prohibit certain images outright – then I think we've made our way to the looney end of the PC bandwagon.

But, on the other hand, I do know what its like to experience rather primitive stirrings of PC principle when I watch certain films. I'm one of those people who saw Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) and felt cheated by the ending. "How dare you send those fine, rebellious women over the cliff to their death?" I imagined myself saying to Scott: "They should have survived, they should have lived, they should have rode into the sunset like good feminist role models!" I know, I really do know rationally, that the people who made Thelma and Louise have the right to include any damn fool ending they like, optimistic or pessimistic, progressive or reactionary. But, in my moment of PC mania, I wanted an exemplary ending, an inspiring one.

Strawberry and Chocolate brings out these kinds of irrational PC responses in me, too. The film dances around having a gay romance between its two main characters, Diego and David. We keep glimpsing the possibility of this romance, the possibility of Diego converting David to a marvellous state of gayness. But the film keeps diving sideways, evasively, in other directions. There's talk of friendship. There's talk of sympathy. There's talk of political allegiance. We keep seeing David with his macho mates in the locker rooms at university, all sweaty and naked and pally, and I kept waiting for Diego to burst in and point out to them: "See! You're all repressed homosexuals anyway! So let's get down to it, fellas". But amazingly, this doesn't happen. There is no gay romance, no crossing the line from straight to gay in this film. And I was disappointed at the end, just like I was disappointed at the end of Thelma and Louise. After all, you see more daring treatments of the relation between straight and gay people in American comedies like Victor/Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1982) or Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (Paul Bartel, 1989) – and even, I must say, in The Brady Bunch Movie (Betty Thomas, 1995). Finally, I'm not sure how really comfortable Alea is with this whole gay theme. The film has a very liberal, humanist, democratic air about it – let us tolerate all people, accept all people, let us cultivate our differences, let a hundred flowers bloom, that kind of spiel. I'm not putting this message down as such. I think it's a pretty good message. But it does lead to a certain tentativeness, a certain nervousness in the film. It starts out like it's going to be a tale of seduction – Diego preying on David, breaking down his defences and resistances – a bit like those American comedies I mentioned before. I even thought, for a moment, that this might lead in a dark, perverse direction – that it might become a tale of David crossing the line with Diego and then drawing back and betraying him – a tale of gay desire sublimating itself, turning sick and twisted rather than liberating itself, like you see in the film version of Last Exit to Brooklyn (Uli Edel, 1989) or in Andre Téchiné's gloomy gay fable I Don't Kiss (1991).

But Strawberry and Chocolate isn't much into merry liberation or gothic tragedy. In fact, it goes totally out of its way to include a whole lumpy sub-plot which is a good old-fashioned heterosexual romance. Diego decides, at a certain point, that since David is rather stiff little straight virgin, he'd better arrange for him to have a nice experience with an older woman, and so he enlists the help of his best female friend Nancy to do the ritual deflowering. I thought this part of the movie was its absolute low point, and I'm not surprised that some overseas reviews that have acclaimed the film as both entertaining and progressive manage to omit mention of this pesky sub-plot altogether.

MORE Tabio: Guantanamera

© Adrian Martin April 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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