Chocolat came out about seven years ago, so maybe it’s a snooze for me to be writing about it now. But I watched it the other night, for the first time since returning to the Christian faith. It’s fascinating how a different perspective can enable us to view a familiar film with new eyes. When Chocolat was in the theatre, I saw it as a Christian-vs.-Pagan film: the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) stood for bedrock conservative Christian values, while his adversary (and our hero), Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche), the chocolatier who dares to open her shop in a provincial French village right at the beginning of Lent, is clearly the “pagan” figure: not only is her shop filled with art and artifacts from the pre-Christian Mayan culture, and not only does she dare to create a lovely chocolate statue of Aphrodite (which the Comte beheads in the story’s ironic climax), but she uses her chocolate “magic” to reignite lost sexual passion for one couple, to nudge a shy old bachelor to finally start wooing the charming widow he has for years admired from afar, and to help a badly battered woman finally leave her abusive husband — all this during a pre-Vatican II Lent!
Seven years go by since I first saw this film, and as part of the great humor built in to the fabric of the universe, during that time I joined the very church of which I saw the Comte as being so emblematic. So wouldn’t it make sense if this time when watching Chocolat I would find the movie slightly offensive, if not simply anti-Catholic? Well, actually, that’s not what I found at all. In fact, after this viewing, I’ve decided that Chocolat is actually a profoundly Christian movie, through and through. Granted, the dramatic tension in the film remains pretty much as I described it, built around the rival worldviews of the pious Comte and the sensual Vianne. Clearly, the Comte stands for established religion, moral clarity, conservative values, and public decency. But this time around, I was able to more clearly pick up all the ways in which he subverts Christianity rather than upholds it. As both a nobleman and mayor of the village, he uses his social position to browbeat the young priest at the town’s church to preach and teach his particular brand of Jansenist theology. He uses gossip as a weapon to undermine Vianne, both personally and as a shopkeeper; and when the village is presented with a “threat” bigger than a chocolate shop open during Lent — a band of Irish river-gypsies led by the gorgeously sexy Roux (Johnny Depp) camps out on the shores of the river near town — the Comte embarks on a “Boycott Immorality” campaign, thereby breaking the Christian commandment to “judge not” even while he chooses purity over hospitality: essentially flouting the teachings of Christ found in Matthew 7 and 25. He all but profanes the sacrament of reconciliation when he forces the abusive Serge to go to confession — and insists the priest hear the confession, even though the brutish Serge has no understanding of contrition. Furthermore, the Comte all but lies about his own estranged wife (who’s on a never-ending “trip”), simply to keep up his own appearance of pious rectitude as he so desperately seeks to maintain control in his village.
The Comte brags that his ancestors hounded the Huguenots out of town, and so a chocolate shop or a band of river-rats seems to be a small threat to him. In other words, his brand of “Christianity” is all about enforcing boundaries and attacking anything perceived as a moral, spiritual, or any other kind of threat.
Now, let’s take a closer look at Vianne. Granted, she is quite upfront about not attending mass — but she never badmouths the church and even when her daughter mentions wanting to attend church so she can feel like she fits in with the villagers, Vianne simply points out that it wouldn’t help. Her love of Mayan culture hardly amounts to veneration of pagan gods; indeed, it’s simply a way of honoring the memory of her Mayan mother — and enjoying her recipe for blending cacao with a particular pepper. Although she refuses to be limited by established religious customs, she does so in order to bring joy and healing to the lives of the ordinary villagers. What other figure in western cultural history can you think of who made a name for himself breaking religious rules (like sabbath laws, for example) in order to do his healing work?
There’s a clearly erotic element to Vianne’s confectionery ministry: as I mentioned above, her chocolate helps to ignite new romances and re-ignite dormant sexual passion. But the real heart of her healing power is not in terms of sex, but in a larger sense, it’s about relationship. A grandmother and her estranged grandson are reunited, and in this process the boy learns to stand up to his overprotective mother. One could even argue that Vianne indirectly helps to rectify the dysfunctional relationship between the Comte and the village priest, for after the Comte’s embarrassing “fall” (on Holy Saturday night!), the priest is finally liberated to find his own voice: and in doing so, during his Easter sermon he powerfully delivers the moral of the story:
I think we can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do; by what we deny ourselves; by what we resist, and who we exclude. I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.
I think Chocolat is hardly about pagan vs. Christian values, although I suppose it could be seen that way (after all, that’s what I thought my first time through the film). Rather, I think it’s about competing visions of who Christ is, and how we are to respond to Christ. The Comte is devoted to the powerful (but decidedly un-Biblical) image of “Christ the King” — stern, remote, hierarchical, concerned with obedience and individual morality rather than healing, community and relationship. Vianne, by contrast, in very humble and unassuming ways embodies the Christ who heals on the sabbath, or who forgives the woman accused of adultery, or who allows the woman of ill-repute to wash his feet with oil (drying them with her hair).
Christ asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” There’s a way in which he makes the same query of each of us who claim to follow him. Chocolat, I believe, makes a powerful statement about what’s at stake in how we answer this all-important question.