::: tommy viola
"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 respectthe setting is a staunchly Roman Catholic, culturally traditional French town and the message is self-consciously about spiritual awakeningits 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, dont 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, theres the beautiful scenery (Johnny Depp and Juliette Binocheeye 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 Gods 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 Chocolatin 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. Thats 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 youre 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: Its either grace or sin. Viannes chocolate is either the reality of Gods unconditional love for those who dont deserve it, or its 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 movies Mr. Potter (Im talking about the dictatorial curmudgeon in Its 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, hes no longer so closed-minded or blatantly malicious.
But theres a flip side that shows the sweet stuff to be Sin with a capital Ssin 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. Its an angle that the makers of the movie cleverly acknowledgeat least if you take seriously their tag line: One Taste is All It Takes.
Like Eves 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 Eves and Adams 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 Viannes temptations opens up a box in each persons 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 compulsionslife-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 cant help himself. The chocolate is in control now. He has Fallen and he cant get up.
Or, he was blind and now he sees. It depends which end of the binoculars youre looking through.
Chocolat makes for a vaguely fun movie in this wayfilm as spiritual metaphor that can be read from top to bottom, or vice-versa. But its 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 challengingand the crème of its genre, the food as sacramental, liberating agent movies (Big Night, Like Water for Chocolate)is Babettes Feast. Where Chocolat is simplistic, Feast is simple. Where Chocolat is dogmatic (If it feels good, do it, and then youll 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 thats best left for another meal.