Food of Love

TLA Releasing, 2002

Ventura Pons, based on The Page Turner by David Leavitt

Starring: Kevin Bishop, Juliet Stevenson, Paul Rhys, Allan Corduner, Geraldine McEwen

Rated R, 112 minutes

Innocence Lost
by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, August, 2003


Acclaimed (and out) Spanish director Ventura Pons has directed his first English language film, Food of Love. Taking its title from one of Shakespeare's sonnets ("if music be the food of love..."), the film is an adaptation of The Page Turner, a novel by the equally distinguished David Leavitt (who also wrote The Lost Language of Cranes).

Piano prodigy Paul Porterfield is 18 and plans to study at Julliard. Fade in as he prepares to step onto a concert stage as the page turner for his idol, the world renowned pianist Richard Kettington. Backstage, the maestro's agent admires the boyishly cute Paul and blatantly hits on him. During the performance, Richard is distracted by the young man's presence. Afterwards, he invites Paul to have a drink but the young page turner's mother is waiting to drive him home. Paul, gay and a virgin, has just lost what might have been the chance of a lifetime.

Several months later, their paths cross again. Paul and his doting mother, Pamela, are vacationing in Barcelona. Reeling from her recent divorce, she clings to her son. Paul spies a poster advertising one of Richard's concerts and is upset that he missed the performance by a single day, It turns out that Maestro Kettington has just finished his tour and is staying a week to rest. The confused and terrified neophyte visits his hotel, not knowing what to expect. After some awkward small talk, Paul allows himself to be quietly seduced. "How do you know what you like if you haven't done anything?" he asks his mentor. Luckily, Richard is a kind teacher, and not just a lothario looking to exploit the lad's hero worship. Afterwards, Paul tries to sneak away. But not without blurting out first to the older pianist that he loves him.

A chance meeting brings Richard together with Paul and his mother. They dine together each day and tour Barcelona. The lonely and neurotic Pamela is also smitten by Richard, and thinks the attraction is mutual. She is clueless that Richard and her son enjoy daily bedroom trysts.

[Reviewer's note, 2007: Though I don't give away the ending,, I revealed a little too much of the plot here. Skip over the next two paragraphs if you wish to discover more of the film on your own.]

Their brief affair is sweet and romantic, but complicated. Paul is responding to both Richard's considerable charms as well as his prowess at the piano. Richard is about to turn 40 and probably sees himself as a youth in Paul. And perhaps because of a growing impatience with his agent, who is also his lover, he is more vulnerable to the willing lad's affections. But he begins to feel smothered by Paul and then, in a scene that is as uncomfortable as it is comical, Pamela attemps to seduce him for herself. An urgent telegram from his agent prompts Richard to flee Barcelona without a word.

The second act details Paul's experiences at Julliard. He hasn't seen Richard since Barcelona and is sleeping with another middle-aged artist. He discovers, as many art and music students do when they attend college, that other pupils possess far more talent than he does. The ultimate humiliation comes when he is asked to be the page turner for a more gifted student at the apartment of Joseph Mansourian, Richard's agent. It is there that he learns of Mansourian's true relationship with Richard. Knowing that he doesn't have what it takes, and quickly learning how to play the game, he stays behind after the recital and lets the lecherous agent have his way with him. Getting even, of course, with Richard in the process. Meanwhile, Pamela discovers her son's homosexuality, and flies to New York for a melodramatic confrontation.

If this sounds like a bad Sidney Sheldon mini-series, it's not. The first half is an exceptional tale of lost innocence, passionate love and mistaken intentions. Maybe, as a former art student, I'm a sucker for coming out stories set in the art world. But this romantic tale has an edge to it, and never gets sappy. The second act, however, is episodic and doesn't always live up to its prelude. Part of the problem is that the focus shifts to the mother, which is not in itself a bad thing, but detracts from Paul's journey. I would like to have known, for example, how Paul came to be with Alden, the older man. The film also ends a tad abruptly. Yet sensitive performances and direction keep the viewer engaged.

Kevin Bishop is adept at being an innocent looking boy who quickly learns what he needs to survive. Paul Rhys, who looks like a cross between Brendan Fraser and Ludwig Von Beethoven, makes Richard Kettington seem down to earth while still aware of his genius. Juliet Stevenson is a marvel as Pamela. She is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown yet Stevenson doesn't overplay the histrionics. Her performance was reminiscent of Francis McDormand's overbearing mother in Almost Famous.

The film is exquisitely photographed. Many emotional scenes are allowed to play out in long takes. In one particularly striking image, Paul lounges like a Renoir nude on a chair in the foreground, his back to the camera, while Richard lays on the bed and this very painterly composition sums up the sensuality as well as the ultimately fleeting nature of their affair. This collaboration between two talented queer artists, Pons and Leavitt, is the most satisfying new gay-themed film that I have seen so far this year.


More On David Leavett:
The Lost Language of Cranes