Saturday, January 20, 2007

Stirring Up Some "Chocolat"

Forgive the pun, but I'm still trying to digest Chocolat, the film Dana and I watched the other evening after we'd put the little one to bed.

The movie, made in 2000, was directed by Lasse Hallstrom and starred Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina and Johnny Depp, among a few other stand-out names. We saw a preview of it not long ago on another DVD we rented, and thought it looked interesting. And our library just happened to have a copy...

This is one of those films I just don't know what to do with. It's pleasant to look at and is well-acted. But the story at its heart is so out of tune with my worldview that I struggled almost every step of the way as a viewer. I don't think this is a film I can review on epinions, mostly because I don't feel like engaging it as a *film* (technical excellence, etc.) as much as I feel like engaging it as a story...and looking at the story's underpinnings from the specific standpoint of the Christian Story.

Although there's romance in this film, the interesting drama really isn't the romance. It's the conflict the filmmakers set up between the mayor of the small French town (Comte Paul de Reynaud, played by Molina) and the newcomer to town, a woman named Vianne (played by Binoche).

We see Comte de Reynaud first, the most prominent member of the congregation at Sunday Mass during the first Sunday in Lent in this very religious, traditionalist town. I actually thought, for the first few minutes, that he was the priest -- and he may as well have been, for all intents and purposes. He controls the church services, morally polices the town, and keeps the young bumbling just-out-of- seminary priest firmly under his thumb, even re-writing most of the poor guy's sermons. Molina's character is an insider. He's lived in this town forever and has the respect (read: fear) of most of the townspeople. He wields power and abuses it. He's into acesticism and denial, and takes his Lenten fast to major extremes.

It's no wonder a man like this would practically have apoplexy when a stunningly beautiful young woman, a single mother with a young daughter in tow, blows into town with a mystical north wind. She's gorgeous, she's sensuous, she wears bright colors, and she's kind and loving to everyone, a good humanist through and through. She won't step foot in the Comte's church. And she has the appalling nerve to open up a chocolate shop in the middle of lent. She makes chocolate delicacies from exotic ingredients shipped in from mysterious places, and her culinary skills show real artistry.

The opposition of these characters is set up so starkly and with such a heavy hand that of course our sympathies are with Vianne the whole way. Which is troubling, because as the movie wears on you realize more and more that the film is really defining their opposite approaches to life with rather clear and obvious tags. The Comte's life denying, rigid and unloving behavior is linked with religion, specifically Catholicism. And Vianne's life affirming, seeing-the-beauty-in-everything and siding with the poor, the least and the lost (as she does repeatedly, befriending and helping several outcasts in the town that have been nothing but brow-beaten or ignored by the religious community) is gradually shown to grow out of a mystical (magical and somewhat fatalistic) paganism. It turns out that she's learned her culinary/medicinal talents from parents who had contacts with exotic, pagan cultures. And she's now fated, or so she believes, to continue the wandering, nomadic existence bequeathed to her by her mother, travelling from town to town dispensing wisdom and kindness and chocolate, but never really finding a home for herself.

If you think I exaggerate, consider a scene in the film which juxtaposes images of the village priest offering eucharist to a man in town who has been beating his wife (we've already seen the Comte forcing the reluctant man through all sorts of seemingly empty religious exercises to push him to repentance) and images of Vianne offering a piece of chocolate to the woman who's been beaten, a woman she simply loves and accepts and takes in like a member of the family. That's another key opposition: the church is shown as cold and academic institution, and the chocolate shop as a vital and loving familial community. An indictment of the church? Perhaps -- and perhaps sometimes one that the church deserves. But it's hard not to wince here and see this as an indictment of a caricature of the church, the church at its worst. And it's hard not to worry about the poor outcasts and wretches sitting at the chocolate counter who really need more substantial and nourishing food for body and spirit.

Binoche and Molina are such fine performers that both sometimes rise above, I think, the heavy-handed simplicity of their scripted characters. And there are actually honest moments in the film that show the two characters have more in common than either might be able to see or willing to admit. Both are lost, emotionally and spiritually in exile, though both would deny that vehemenently. And it's harder to see with Vianne's character, because I'm not sure the filmmakers *wanted* us to see it, or even fully realized it was there -- we're clearly being set up to view her tolerant, loving, open-handed approach to life as the better philosophy to live by. But she is indeed lost. She longs for a home and a place to belong and someone to love and be loved by. She knows she is putting her young daughter through pain and loneliness as they travel from place to place, though she lies about that repeatedly (until she finally comes clean to her lover, played by Johnny Depp). She's essentially in bondage to the power of death, a point brought home quite vividly when she only finds the power to break away from the "wandering life" after her daughter accidentally breaks the urn containing her mother's ashes.

Of course, in the end -- Vianne wins. She wins over the townspeople, even the Comte, whose life-denying religion explodes in his face on Easter eve. He gives in to temptation and gorges and indulges his apetites, making himself sick on the chocolates in the shop. And such indulgence, in the story of the film, finally brings him peace. He even gets to give up on his marriage vows and the wife who left him (she's not coming back after all!) so he can finally romance his secretary.

The ending of the film feels particularly dishonest and frustrating. We're given the easy ending: see! Vianne was right! Indulgence and tolerance and embracing anything you want to embrace and doing whatever feels right to you in a given moment is all that counts! And it will bring you joy! The sprightly bright happy ending makes us forget a few things: what about the lives lost in the wake of all this indulging and embracing? (I haven't gone into the stories of the more minor characters, but believe me, this is a question worth asking.)

And worst of all, the namby-pamby priest who has been under the Comte's thumb and preaching the Comte's sermons finally stands up for himself on Easter morning -- and -- and... can't find a text! He doesn't preach the resurrection, doesn't preach the most wonderful, brilliant, life-altering, radical, beautiful, poor-least-lost embracing Gospel -- the REAL Gospel that would send the Comte to his knees and then dancing in the streets if he'd ever really heard it and received it. Instead the priest preaches an amorphous liberal theology that looks like a pale imitation of the more vivid life Vianne has been living. He basically says "we should all try being kinder to one another" and "we should embrace and include, not deny and exclude" and then they all head out to the pagan fesitval (I'm not exaggerating, I promise) that Vianne had planned for that afternoon.

Please don't think I'm saying that grace doesn't show up in unexpected places. I've learned lots of loving lessons from people who don't call themselves Christians. And I've met people who call themselves Christians who don't seem to have much joy in their lives. But it just made me so sad to watch a story like this, a story whose ultimate message is that we can find joy and meaning and purpose ultimately apart from God, that what life is essentially about is our own happiness regardless of what it may cost us or others. (There's a character, played by Judi Dench, who dies from complications to her diabetes -- she's been eating too much chocolate, of course. But hey, she was happy and that's all that counted.)

The questions this film poses are interesting, but the answers are just too easy. For one thing, I think most of us would agree that life can't be simply defined as either pure denial or pure indulgence. I'd like to think that most of us would realize that, even on our worst days, we do sometimes deny ourselves for the greater good of others. That's not bondage or rigidity. It's freedom -- freedom to obey God, freedom to live a life that honors God who is larger than ourselves and our pleasures and desires and all the little false gods we try to set up. Freedom to follow the Lord of heaven and earth who for our sakes became poor, who denied himself and took up a cross -- and yet who knew life and humanity more abundantly than anyone who has ever walked this earth.

I'll stop rambling now, except to say that I have a feeling I should re-watch Babette's Feast. That's also a film about richness and beauty and goodness being brought to a spiritually dying community, but if I remember correctly (it's been several years since I've seen it) the feasting is grounded in a Christian context and resonates wonderfully with images of the euchasistic feast and the heavenly banquet.


Erin said...

I saw this movie on the plane to or from England - can't recall which - in 2001, and between my general tiredness, squinting to read the subtitles on the tiny screen and focusing on avoiding airsickness, I wasn't able to concentrate on the movie too well, which disappointed me because it was a movie I'd been interested in seeing. I remember very little about the movie, though it's coming back after reading your post; I just recall it left me flat and not quite understanding why everyone was raving about it so much...

Beth said...

I'm really glad I didn't have to watch this with subtitles; our version was in English. Perhaps there's a French version?

I didn't mean to get into such a rant, but the movie really left me frustrated. They just kept trying to offer easy "remedies" (chocolate, anyone?) to life's complexities. The Judi Dench character, which I didn't delve into but would have loved to, was a case in point. I think we were supposed to think she was "healed" in some way because she had a party before she died -- she danced, she hung out with her young grandson (against mom's wishes) she ate chocolate and rich food (though she knew it would kill her) and she basically just "embraced life" and was "true to herself." All of which frankly looked like empty creeds to live by, considering that she died due to her own over-indulgence, still unreconciled to her daughter (though of course the daughter was "won over" to the embracing life creedo) after many years of loneliness and heartache. Brilliantly acted part though -- Dench is always worth watching!

Johnny Depp didn't get much screen time in this one, though I was intrigued to see that the director of this film had directed him earlier in *What's Eating Gilbert Grape.* Another odd film, but one I like much better.

Erin said...

I *think* it was in French, though why we would have had the French version on a plane between America and England I don't know... now I'm starting to question my memory on that point... Anyway, it sounds like you have very good reason for finding the movie frustrating. Speaking of Dench, have you seen "Iris"? I never heard of it until Jim Broadbent won the Oscar - over Ian McKellan for FotR, to my disappointment - but I've heard good things about it since...

Beth said...

No, haven't seen *Iris* but I like both Dench and Broadbent, so I should probably put that one on a "to-see-sometime" list.

The more I think about it, the more I'm pretty sure there would not be a version of *Chocolat* in French -- unless it was subtitled in French. The movie was definitely done in English, though set in France. Hmm...maybe it was a different movie you saw?