"All lies and jest,
still a man hears what he wants to hear
and disregards the rest."
—Simon and Garfunkel
ince Chocolat is a religious film in most every respect—the setting is a staunchly Roman Catholic, culturally traditional French town and the message is self-consciously about spiritual awakening—it’s interesting to note the responses to the film from religious viewers in the U.S. They can be divided into two basic camps:
Liberal Christians (you know: WASP-y Democrats, tall steeples, nice haircuts, drop off old, generic canned goods at the soup kitchen, don’t take religion “too far”) have loved Chocolat, regarding it as “rife with religious themes and imagery, without being a religious film.” This is a fun film for Ms. and Mr. Mainline Christian since the traditionalists are exposed as hypocrites and the free spirits triumph in the end. Plus, there’s the beautiful scenery (Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche—eye candy, anyone?).
Conservative Christians (you know: red-necked Republicans, movie screen on the wall of the church for the projection of corny praise songs, hand out tracts at the mall, believe in God’s wrath on sinners and all that) have mostly hated Chocolat for its utter lack of morality (“very offensive”); the way it vilifies all the religious people and authority figures in the film; and the eye candy.
Like most heresy, both the liberals and conservatives have it wrong about Chocolat—in part because both have it sort of right. Sure, it may well offend the sensibilities of both sides, but the heart of the film depends not a whit on how the religious people are portrayed or whether or not it affirms “traditional values.” That’s all just window dressing.
No, both camps have, inconceivably, missed the crucial hinge on which the movie swings, one way or the other. I say “one way or the other” because this film, read in a religious context, really must be about either the incomparable beauty of definitive spiritual liberation or the implacable terror of eternal spiritual bondage. I say “inconceivably” because the so carefully veiled swivel in this film à clef is . . . well, what else? Chocolate.
“For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life.” —2 Corinthians 2:15-16
It all hangs on the chocolate. Just decide how you’re going to “read” the dark stuff that bubbles out of the kitchen of Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and everything falls into place. But like the optical trick where the old hag becomes a beautiful belle who then morphs back to an old hag, what you want to see is probably what you will see.
Chocolate, in Chocolat, boils down to a simple formula: It’s either grace or sin. Vianne’s chocolate is either the reality of God’s unconditional love for those who don’t deserve it, or it’s the Big Lie from the Father of Lies that enslaves, corrupts, and destroys.
The filmmakers are obviously angling for the former. We see chocolate enable an abused wife to leave her husband, stir a lethargic husband to make love to his wife, and compel a mother and daughter to be reconciled after years of division. Even the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), this movie’s Mr. Potter (I’m talking about the dictatorial curmudgeon in It’s a Wonderful Life, not the boy wizard), is finally converted at the end, unable but to devour half a store of the stuff. Fully satiated, he’s no longer so closed-minded or blatantly malicious.
But there’s a flip side that shows the sweet stuff to be Sin with a capital S—sin as not just the bad stuff we do, but the Christian understanding of the bad root that takes up residence in us and is itself the cause of all the bad fruit we bear. It’s an angle that the makers of the movie cleverly acknowledge—at least if you take seriously their tag line: “One Taste is All It Takes.”
Like Eve’s bite of the forbidden fruit, one mouthful of chocolate “unleashes Hell,” as Mr. Crowe puts it in Gladiator. We see this in the First Garden as one swallow severs Eve’s and Adam’s ties with God, the only person who can properly orient their lives. Without God, they are left defenseless against their own destructive desires. Similarly in Chocolat, one bite of Vianne’s temptations opens up a box in each person’s life that cannot be closed.
The filmmakers make sure that the compulsions of those who have fallen under the spell of the chocolate are portrayed as healthy compulsions—life-affirming, therapeutic, all of that. But it is nonetheless significant that all who have tasted of the forbidden delicacy see the change that has come upon them as inescapable, something they cannot help, a persuasive itch that cannot be satiated until it has been scratched. It sends at least one of the villagers running to the confessional, where he declares to the priest that he “can’t help himself.” The chocolate is in control now. He has Fallen and he can’t get up.
Or, he was blind and now he sees. It depends which end of the binoculars you’re looking through.
Chocolat makes for a vaguely fun movie in this way—film as spiritual metaphor that can be read from top to bottom, or vice-versa. But it’s pretty bland in the end, ultimately simplistic, unrealistic, and unchallenging. I mean, how long would you actually want to stare at one of those visual tricks? Would you want one in your living room?
So much more challenging—and the crème of its genre, the “food as sacramental, liberating agent” movies (Big Night, Like Water for Chocolate)—is Babette’s Feast. Where Chocolat is simplistic, Feast is simple. Where Chocolat is dogmatic (“If it feels good, do it, and then you’ll be free”), Feast is beautifully humble (“You will be free when you know what is good and you are able to do it”). But all that’s best left for another meal.