Soon after their arrival in a tranquil French town in the winter of 1959, the mysterious stranger Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her spirited daughter open a chocolate shop. Soon it becomes clear that Vianne has a talent for seeing her customers' desires and satisfying them with a bon-bon made just for them. Fearing her power to make the townspeople abandon themselves to temptation, the mayor, Comte de Reynaud, tries to run her out of town.
In the movie, the Comte is miserable, in denial that his wife has left him, and he uses religion to make everyone as miserable as he is. Organized religion, the movie seems to say, lends itself to this kind of perversion.
I would put it differently. All religions, including earth-based, or any person involved in a spiritual quest of any kind, are vulnerable to self-delusion, just because it makes one more open to certain things.
What I thought odd was that there wasn't a moment where the protagonists suddenly understood their connection to ultimate reality. I liked that it showed that something as simple as opening a chocolate shop can have huge consequences in the lives of people. Vianne was, in her own way, a minister. She listened, much more than the priest listened, and intuited everyone's problems. She knew how to make people feel good about themselves. The priest and the mayor are the forces in the town, yet they aren't listening to anybody.
One of our columnists, Frederica Mathewes-Greene, wrote that "Chocolat" completely misunderstands the concept of spiritual self-denial. What would you say to that?
As I understand it, you're supposed to give up something that's a little more important than chocolate. I don't think making the analogy to Hindus and cattle and pork and Jews works. My question is, how prevalent today is the Catholicism that's being criticized? It was pre-'60s, pre-Vatican II; that kind of Catholicism did exist then. But I don't think it's so much a critique of Catholicism as it is a critique of an old-time, rigid Catholicism. It wouldn't have resonance for someone growing up Catholic in America today, I wouldn't guess.
You could see it in the depictions. Every time we saw the Comte, he was sitting under a crucifix, while Vianne was always surrounded by bright colors and Mayan pottery.
But I'm not so sure it says much about Paganism versus Catholicism. There are versions of Catholicism that are filled with incense and tastes and sounds and sensual things, and versions of Paganism that are fairly Protestant in nature.
One the other hand, I think the reason paganism and earth-based religions are so popular, it's because the juice and mystery have been taken out of a lot of our religious practice. People want to live in the modern world, not have to conform to a ridiculous doctrine, but still have the juice and mystery.
Vianne is a single mom who triumphs over powerful men. Would you call "Chocolat" a very female-positive film?
It is pro-female, but I don't see it as anti-male. It certainly fits well with the view that women have a certain power of understanding, but I wouldn't think of it as being politically feminist particularly.
Vianne's father is a lapsed Catholic, and her mother is a Mayan healer. Are Mesoamerican religions considered earth-based?
Oh yeah. I think underneath all this there's an enormous attempt to say that this is an earth-based religion that's looking at this form of Christianity and making a counterpoint. But I'm not sure how clear that comes off. There are all these little tiny aspects of it--the red capes, for examples. Is that kind of a "witchy" cape? I think it's just that red is blood, life, corporeal--it's life.
I'd be interested to know if that was a scene that got cut. In the most rabidly anti-clerical novel ever written, "The Gadfly," the hero of the novel goes into Mass at the end and watches the Eucharist and realizes that it's all about blood and death and blood and death.
There have been a lot of movies that have been food-sensuality movies: "Tom Jones," "Tampopo".... There's a whole bunch of movies where food ends up being the metaphor for life-affirming sensuality. This one on some level was tamer.
Miramax describes the film as an "allegory of community, celebration, acceptance, rebirth, tradition, family, love, tolerance, joy, patience and forgiveness." Do you think it made all these points?
In the end there is forgiveness. The mayor seems to understand his wife isn't coming back, the priest goes through this odd moment. Transformation and forgiveness. That's a lot. Clearly, the community in some sense came together. The most powerful thing about the movie was that there was change.
Do you see any kind of statement in the fact that Central America was conquered by Catholics, and now Vianne, with Mayan background, is conquering this Catholic town?
That reminds me of "The Mission." There again is a very anti-clerical movie, and similar in some sense, as it's contrasting the church with the beautiful sensual culture. This movie is not standing alone; it's part of a whole genre of film.
In the first scene, when the north wind brings Vianne to town, I immediately thought of "Mary Poppins."
How interesting. Mary Poppins is clearly a witch, if you read all the books. She comes in on the wind, she sets up shop, except Vianne doesn't leave, and she comes for the whole community.