Johnny Depp’s first chocolate film…

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.

Amen!

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.

  • http://discombobula.blogspot.com Sue

    Wow, Carl this was just fascinating. I saw Chocolat when it first came out and I must admit my memories of it are rather murky (I had chronic fatigue syndrom at the time). But I do remember at the very least that I didn’t particularly see the Christian tones in it. (After all, when Johnny Depp is on the screen, it’s hard to see much else ;)

    My sensibilities have changed so much since then; my worldview expanding along with my view of God and his goodness and how, as Julian said, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”. I look forward to a return to rewatch – you’ve inspired me :) (Plus the picture of Johnny Depp)

  • Peter

    Thanks for your (belated) review, Carl–I think you’ve got this right, and have stated it very clearly. My beloved wife first asked me to watch this with her, after she had already seen it; she said to me, “I really like this movie–but I’m not sure it’s OK for me to like it!” We agreed after seeing it together that it was, and that the hypocrisy of the Comte is a very poor image of Christianity indeed. [The Huguenots have always been some of our folk heroes!] But even he has a turn-around of sorts and is won by a gentler, more biblical worldview before the end. And don’t forget Vianne’s change of heart and life-pattern at the end, where she is freed from the driving demands of a fear-based, destructive lifestyle, and released to follow through on some of the more pleasant and stable consequences of her humbler and more humane view of Christ and his benevolent influence on the human condition.

    I intend to show your review to Barb and see how she enjoys it, and whether she will write something of her own to share her feelings on the topic. Meanwhile we will enjoy a little evening Chocolat and thank God for his goodness to us!

    Blessings,
    Peter

  • Barb

    Actually, what I said was…”I want you to watch this movie with me; I’m not sure whether I like it or not.”

    It was significant to me that the Baron found grace when he confronted his own sinfulness, symbolized both by his destruction of the chocolate images and by his yielding to them as temptation. This, after all, is the gospel of Jesus Christ, is it not? Did Jesus die only for prostitutes and tax collectors, or are legalists included in his redemption as well, if they confess and repent of their sin?

    It was also significant to me that Vianne was able to connect with the people of the little Catholic village–to settle down there and to feel comfortable, eventually, even in their church–when she confronted her own quasi-religious rigidity of belief, based on a blind devotion to a person we have seen only briefly during the course of the story, but whose memory has controlled her in a destructive way all her life. I thought, it is not only the judgmental and legalistic “Christian” who must break his idols in order to be reconciled to God and man.

    So, the two, the Baron and Vianne, are equal–mirror images, you might say. Do we as Christians really believe this? If there is condemnation of sin on both sides, is there also forgiveness and redemption for both? If not, then both blatantly pagan “sinners,” bound by superstition and controlled by forces of which they may be unaware, AND legalistic “good Christians” –also bound by various church-taught superstitions, and controlled by the chains of destructive religious traditions they no longer question–are in really bad trouble!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Yes, one of the important nuances that I didn’t discuss in this review, but what truly makes this movie important, is Vianne’s own growth.

    Benedictine spirituality celebrates both hospitality and stability, and would even suggest that one depends on the other. Early on in the movie we learn that Vianne is an expert at hospitality; the gift she receives from the townspeople (led by Justine) as she struggles with the temptation to run away from the vulnerability she finds in her attraction to Roux, is the gift of stability.

  • http://nemeton.blogspot.com/ Yvonne

    Hi Carl

    Fascinating. Yes, the film could be seen as being about two competing value systems, neither of which seem exclusively Christian or exclusively Pagan.

    In fact, narrow sectarian authoritarians are found in all religions (there may even be a few in Paganism, possibly disguised as trolls) and free spirits who transform the social landscape and bring love and healing are also found in all religions (e.g. Gandhi, Starhawk, Francis of Assisi, the Baal Shem Tov, Socrates, Buddha, Christ, Al Hallaj, Baha’ullah, Rammohun Roy… I could go on).

    You can tell I’m a Unitarian, can’t you? ;)

    It’s a lovely film, and Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche are delicious. Also enjoyed Judi Dench’s acting, as ever. In the book, the authoritarianism versus sensuality theme is not as obvious.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Ah, yes, Judi Dench, superb as always. I didn’t mention her in the review, but she never misses a beat as the bitter Armande (bitter as in “dark chocolate”). One of the numerous treats of this movie is that it features both Dench and Depp, arguably two of the finest thespians active today. I just wish they had more direct interaction.

  • shelley

    hi everyone i thought that it was quite a good movie. I wish that they would of showed people on the movie how they got the cococa bean. Its called trade free chocolate and thay use the kids to get the cococa beans from/off the cococa bean tree. They belt the kids to go and get the beans off the tree. It was discusting to see the pictures. But i want to end on a good note. I really love chocolate and it was a really good movie but i still prefer the first movie (charlie and the chocolate factory #1)


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X