Chocolat, Lance Hallström’s adaptation of Joanne Harris’ bestselling novel, is perhaps the ultimate French film for English audiences – peak Miramax, peak indie-mainstream and peak Palace Cinemas, for those who saw it in Australia at the time. In other words, it’s a classic comfort watch, marking a particular moment in the evolution of chocolate fandom, and the public expectation of what fine chocolate should and could be. We start in the fictional French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, in the 1950s, although the mindset of the locals seems to stem from a much older time period – in keeping with the elevated and fortified aspect and architecture of the village, which is actually the medieval commune of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain.
This village is run by the Comte de Reynaud, played by Alfred Molina, who rules with an iron fist. For the Comte, Lansquenet stands for tranquillity, tradition and order. Most of his days are spent on three main activities – taking walks around the town to check on the citizens, compling the town’s history (“I have completed the eighteenth century”) and instructing the local clergy on the tenor and tone of their sermons. As the film begins, the most recent priest has just retired after decades of service. The Comte is tasked with making sure that his replacement, Pere Henri, played by Hugh O’Conor, props up the town’s conservative outlook.
It makes sense, then, that the film starts in the midst of a Lent sermon, during a “time of abstinence,” since the Comte advocates restraint and repression in all things. No sooner does this sermon begin, however, than it’s interrupted by the north wind, which brings a new visitor to town – Vianne Rocher, a mysterious blow-in played by Juliette Binoche, and her daughter Anouk, played by Victoire Thivisol. Even before Vianne arrives, though, you sense something bursting to break free from this stuffy village – it’s there in the cool blue filters, perpetual mist and panpiped score, all of which suggest a mystical potential waiting to soar.
If the Comte stands for restraint, then Vianne stands for appetite. As soon as she arrives, she rents a decrepit bakery from Armande Voizin, played by Judi Dench, who also happens to be the mother of Caroline Clairmont, the Comte’s assistant. The Comte is clearly in love with Caroline, but he can’t articulate it, especially since he’s technically married, although his wife has been away on a trip for longer than anyone can remember. Armande has her own issues as well, since her feisty independence has estranged her from Caroline (who’s also a widow) along with her only grandson, Luc, a young budding artist played by Aurelien Parent-Koenig.
Vianne wastes no time making her values clear. She’s a radical, an atheist, unmarried, and communes freely with black folk. She also transforms the bakery into a chocolaterie, and quickly attracts clientele with the sheer exoticism of her recipes. One of her first and most important customers is Josephine Muscat, played by Lena Olin, a German woman who was left behind when the Nazis retreated. She married Serge, played by Peter Stormare, the owner of the local pub, and accepted his abuse because she already believed herself to be a second-class citizen. That all changes now, as Vianne takes her in, and then employs her in the store.
Yet Vianne’s biggest threat to the Comte ultimately stems from the chocolate itself. As if being French weren’t exotic enough for the film, Vianne decks out her store in Mayan motifs, and names it Chocolate Maya. This creates “a holy war between chateau and chocolaterie,” as the Comte compares her recipes to the radical Huguenots that his ancestors expelled from the town. The Comte directes Pere Henri to sermonise against chocolate, while even the most upright villagers are tempted into the ultimate transgression – surreptitiously eating chocolate in church, during sermons reminding them of the need to fast properly during Lent.
There’s an enjoyable absurdity to all this, as chocolate become synonymous with the literacy of the laity – not all that different, in the film’s scheme, to the Protestant influence that the Comte despites. The abstinent ambience of the town also makes the chocolate more mouth-watering for the audience – and for the Comte himself. Nevertheless, Vianne builds her client base, and gets her biggest kick with the arrival of Roux, a gypsy-pirate played by Johnny Depp, a “river rats, dregs of society.” Vianne comes in on the wind, Roux comes in on the river, and together they bring something beautiful and yet fleeting to the town, creating a melancholy undertone that enhances the feel-good elements, making the film compulsively rewatchable.
Of course, the core of Chocolat is the way it depicts the sensuous pleasures and preparation of chocolate itself. These scenes tip the film over into magical realism, as the panpipes centre on Vianne’s recipes. Yet the film is also hip to two major changes in commercial chocolate consumption that were taking place at the time too. First, we see a new taste for soft chocolate, and a hunger for a greater array of chocolate textures, rather than the regular recourse to hard blocks of chocolate, choc-nut combinations or simple cream centres. Part of Vianne’s magic is the way she manages to conflate melted and solid chocolate into ganache fantasias, collapsing the sensuality of making chocolate into the sensuality of consuming it.
This creates a renewed sense of chocolate as an aphrodisiac, especially when combined with Vianne’s second main innovation – chilli and spice. I wondered whether the 2000s craze for chilli in chocolate stemmed from the film, or whether the film simply reflected and amplified it, but in either case Chocolat is obsessed with spiced chocolate, and with the idea of chocolate as a spice in and of itself. Later in the film, Vianne puts on a dinner party for Armande, and explicitly treats chocolate as a spice, using it to season every savoury dish, from the roast chicken to the gravy, in a savoury iteration of the film’s pervasive ganache liquidity.
Having presented chocolate as an aphrodisiac, an exotic spice, and an incentive to innovation, Hallstron starts to present it in mystical terms, as a source of visionary hallucination. Vianne is as much an apothecary as a chocolatier, providing chocolate therapy that targets the mind as much as the body (or targets the mind through the body). She’s like a folk figure, much as the film feels drawn from old folk stories, and she uses a Mayan wheel to divine each customer’s chocolate preference. Whatever they see spinning in the wheel determines their personal “flavour,” in a kind of chocolate-centric revival of the fine folk art of fortune telling.
This mystical element bleeds over into Vianne’s backstory as well. We learn that her father was an apothecary who went on a mission to South America to discover new herbs and remedies. When he was there, he tried a Mayan cacao recipe renowned for its power to “unlock hidden yearnings and reveal destinies.” Sure enough, he fell in love with the first woman he saw, and married her on the spot. Yet she turned out to belong to a wandering tribe of healers who followed the North Wind in search of people who needed their services.
Vianne continues this project in the present, turning chocolate into a cult in and of itself. Her store directly faces the church, and provides an alternative religion – a matriarchal cult, with herself as the great mystical mother, encouraging other women to embrace their appetites too, even when society deems it to be self-destructive. To its credit, the film never falters here – Josephine refuses to take her husband back, even when the Comte “reforms” him, while Armande continues to enjoy chocolate to the last, despite being in late-stage diabetes. Meanwhile, Vianne holds a fertility festival on Easter Sunday, and communes with her own dead mother, whose ashes look uncannily like the secret spices in her chocolate concoctions.
Mysticism aside, chocolate also becomes a vehicle for a more collective sociability here, since chocolate is above all a shared pleasure – the pleasure of watching others experience, and catch onto, your own pleasure. As Vianne remakes the town in her own image, she builds a chocolate replica of the town in her window, before inviting select members of the town to a dinner party at Armande’s house. This quickly segues into a kind of chocolate “happening” on Roux’s boat, as chocolate ushers in the first glimpse of countercultural collectivity on the cusp of the 1960s. Everyone is high on chocolate during this beautiful scene – dancing, drinking, laughing and sleeping together into the night, and forcing the Comte into his greatest crisis.
Like the wind and the river, like Vianne and Roux, chocolate is thus capable of unexpected metamorphoses, strange and sudden shifts in taste and texture – it evokes a yearning to change, to transfigure, which passes on to everybody who tastes Roux’s delicious creations. As a result, Chocolat is driven by quite sudden character shifts, abrupt pivots in affect that feel strangely plausible under the influence of chocolate. These recall the rapid transitions in folk tales, but also draw on Binoche’s mercurial presence in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue, which is, in its own way, another folk tale about the nature of French identity.
As the film draws into its third act, the images of Christ become more dark-skinner, closer to chocolate, as if embracing chocolate goes hand in hand with a more realistic and reparative understanding of Christianity as well. The Comte finally reconciles with chocolate after praying to a crucifix cut from dark wood, and plunges into a religious ecstasy as he breaks into Vianne’s store and succumbs. Chocolate is finally a form of catharsis, permitting the Comte to accept that his wife has left him, before falling asleep in the window display of the store.
The next morning, the booth in the window replaces the confessional booth, as Vianne promises to keep the Comte’s secret while forgiving him for vandalising her wares. We now cut to a more reparative sermon, as Pere Henri focuses on the importance of embracing humanity alongside divinity. In the last instance, for this particular town, chocolate mediates the humanity of Christ and Christianity, and almost allows the priest to articulate a reparatively queer desire: “we must measure goodness by what we create, who we include.”
This Easter Sunday sermon now gives way to a chocolate festival in the square between the church and the chocolaterie. This square has been deserted, contested ground, for most of the film, but it’s now filled to the brim with the ebb and flow of a restored public sphere, as divinity and humanity are finally reconciled. In these final moments, Chocolat has the cosmic sweep of a folk story that has passed down through the generations, even as Harris and Hallström remediate it for the new millennium as well. As we pull back over the village, it all feels indubitably French, but in the same way Michel Cretu’s Enigma – a synthpiped circumambience of air and water, whence the two major characters emerge; a new kind of digital folkscape that just makes the embodied pleasures of chocolate even more sublime.