(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was to focus on the sense of taste, so I had to go with one of the greatest foods known to man.)
Dear Chocolate, Chocolate, friend of mine,
How sweetly do you intertwine
With fruit or nuts, desire or fear,
A comfort in my worries drear,
A flavorful apotheosis
Of the highest form of sweet!
From pickiness when I was young,
I never spurned you from my tongue.
At holidays made consummate
And in between, dear Chocolate,
Your need’s my daily diagnosis,
My closest friend that I can eat.
MPAA rating: PG-13
By all accounts, Chocolat is a film I should love. I am an admitted chocolate addict, and I love lighthearted romances with its kind of charm, especially when they have the added emotional depth this one retains. Yet for all its strengths and five Oscar nominations, I was more annoyed than charmed by Chocolat.
The story centers on a wandering chocolatier named Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her young daughter, who move to a quiet and staunchly religious French village to open a chocolate shop. The problem is that they do so just as Lent begins, and Vianne’s atheist disregard for this traditional season of self-denial inevitably draws the ire of the town’s mayor Reynaud (Alfred Molina). Yet nothing can halt the power of chocolate, and Vianne’s natural charisma slowly wins over many of the town’s residents, as well as a member of a visiting gypsy band (Johnny Depp).
There’s much to enjoy about Chocolat, not least its whimsical tone and Rachel Portman score, and the full appeal of a mostly excellent cast. Binoche is infectious with her passion for chocolate and catering to others’ unacknowledged needs, while Depp displays a sweet and romantic allure he doesn’t usually get to show off in his weirder roles. Best of all is Oscar-nominated Judi Dench as Vianne’s landlady and first chocolate convert, whose cynicism and desire to reconnect with her grandson make this among her best roles and certainly worthier of an Oscar than her short appearance in Shakespeare in Love. Chocolate itself is also very much a star, and Vianne’s creations should make any chocoholic’s mouth water, which is why it placed #7 on my Candy in Movies list.
Yet all these positives only make the film’s religious vilification more frustrating. Perhaps it’s because I do fast for Lent every year, but I couldn’t root for Vianne’s campaign to make the townspeople yield to their temptations. I was hoping instead her business could survive until Lent was over, but no, Lent and fasting are seen as obstacles to be overcome, repression to be vanquished. The film’s characters, writers, and probably Joanne Harris, on whose novel the film is based, clearly misunderstand sin and the meaning of Lent, that personal abstinence is meant to bring its adherents closer to God by their sacrifice. There should be no conflict here if Vianne had not come during Lent, but instead, the people of the village seem to view any and all pleasure as a sin, whether it’s during Lent or not. Their indulgent awakening would have been more heartening if Lent and the Church weren’t scapegoats to spoil everyone’s fun. Molina’s Reynaud is the embodiment of the town’s religious stricture, even if he does have a rare humanizing moment or two. The turning point of his own surrender to “temptation” is a wholly ridiculous scene that most reminded me of a SpongeBob SquarePants episode called “Just One Bite,” where Squidward yields to his craving for Krabby Patties, a scene which (now that I think about it) was probably inspired by Chocolat. Yet what’s funny in a cartoon just felt strange and absurd in a film like this.
Chocolat would have been better as simply a Mary Poppins-ish tale of Vianne helping the town, such as how she inspires an abused wife to escape from actual oppression, but its antagonism was misplaced. Every time I started enjoying Chocolat, it kept reminding me that “chocolate good, religious oppression bad,” and while I wholeheartedly embrace the former point, the latter kept spoiling it for me. The fine acting and passion for one of the best foods ever invented are clearly key to Chocolat‘s appeal, but it could have been so much better if religion and tradition weren’t depicted as such finger-wagging killjoys.
Best line: (the village priest, giving a sermon) “I’d rather talk about [our Lord’s] humanity. I mean, you know, how He lived His life, here on Earth. His kindness, His tolerance… Listen, here’s what I think. I think that we can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do. By what we deny ourselves, 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.”
Rank: Dishonorable Mention
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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