Life is bittersweet,'' concedes Alfonso Arau with a wry smile.
The Mexican director of Like Water for Chocolate should know. Arau, 63, was best known to American audiences for playing a menacing bandito in Three Amigos! Then came Chocolate (1993), his sumptuous, food-filled, $3 million romance based on a novel by his wife of 12 years, Laura Esquivel, 44. The film proved a surprise, word-of-mouthwatering hit (grossing $22 million in the U.S. alone), and became the most successful foreign-language film of all time.
But as Hollywood was tempting him with offers of more tasty love stories, Arau's marriage turned bitter, dead-ending in divorce and worse. Last March, Esquivel filed a $19 million suit in New York Supreme Court, charging that he cheated her out of a previously agreed 5 percent of the film's net profits worldwide by getting her to sign away all her interests and rights in the property. Esquivel's complaint claims Arau told her ''that the document meant nothing'' and that ''he needed [it] in order to obtain a distribution deal.'' Furthermore, the complaint says, ''Arau was aware that Esquivel was not familiar with the [written] English language.''
''It's been a big misunderstanding, a big miscommunication, the result of a divorce,'' the director insists, quickly adding, ''it is getting resolved in a very civilized way.'' Not quite so fast, cautions Esquivel's attorney, Maura Wogan. ''It doesn't look as if it's going to settle they're pretty far apart. There's an action pending, and the case is going to proceed.''
In the meantime, Arau hasn't soured on romance at least, cinematically. His new movie, the $20 million A Walk in the Clouds, stars Keanu Reeves as a World War II vet and frustrated chocolate salesman who falls in love with the Mexican-American daughter of Napa Valley vintners. Shot against wine-red sunsets, Clouds however heartfelt is a calculated attempt to recapture his previous film's magic. Explains Arau, ''It's not that I planned to use food in one film and wine in the other, but both are elements in the transmission of love.''
Given the swoony lyricism of both movies, it comes as a shock that Arau names ol' blood-and-guts Sam Peckinpah who gave him his first American acting gig in The Wild Bunch as his artistic mentor. Less surprising is that Arau himself has become a mentor. While Robert Rodriguez was shooting El Mariachi, his dirt-cheap debut feature, in the same Mexican border town where Chocolate was filming, the two struck up a friendship. Recalls Rodriguez, ''It was just a great feeling knowing he was so encouraging and supportive. I felt as if I was on some new, Latin wave.''
Clearly, not all of Arau's film partnerships have been so idyllic. Of working with his ex-wife, the filmmaker will say only, ''It was very hard, but now it's over, now it's past.'' Heartburn, however, may still be on the menu.