Chocolat: Where Liberal and Conservative Meet

ChocolatI finally got around to watching the 2000 film Chocolat. I loved it. It’s like a fairy tale. It reminded me most of The Boxtrolls, which I reviewed earlier this year (The Boxtrolls and the Happy Ending of Class). The emotional core of the film is Vianne’s first customer, Yvette who uses a special chocolate concoction to revamp her love life with her husband Alphonse. I don’t think it is about sex so much as sensuality. People can have sex without connecting with one another. Think of phone sex or pornography. But we see Yvette and Alphonse throughout the movie as a doting and happy couple. That is the magic of chocolate and Chocolat.

But I noticed that on Rotten Tomatoes, the film does not have a terribly high rating: 63%. It speaks to our culture that the overwhelming majority of negative reviews come from men. And far too many of the critical reviews are political in nature. I’m not against that in general. I write many film reviews from an explicit leftist perspective. But the reviews that I read were only implicitly political. They didn’t engage with the film’s politics. Instead, they referred to it as Jeremy Heilman does, calling it an “offensive liberal fantasy” and that it “treats Catholicism as folly.”

Most of the negative reviews come in the form presented by James Kendrick, “For all its anti-religious and anti-establishment posturing, Chocolat is terribly conventional.” But how is it anti-religious and anti-establishment? If it is, so is the 1970 holiday staple, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. Because the main character in the film is not Juliette Binoche’s chocolate making wanderer Vianne Rocher; it is Alfred Molina’s Comte de Reynaud, who is distorting the town and its church because of his own personal problems. Vianne may delight the town, but ultimately, it is de Reynaud whose transformation changes the town. And that transformation is not brought on by chocolate, but by his secretary Caroline telling him what everyone knows about his wife, “I don’t believe anyone would think less of you if you were to say she was never coming back.”

The problem that is evident in the “anti-establishment” complaint is that people like Vianne and Johnny Depp’s “river rat” Roux live in opposition to the establishment. They simply want to be accepted enough to exist unmolested. Some people have the gift of fitting in better than others. But as the film ably demonstrates, the church is about acceptance. From the beginning, we see that the young Father Pere Henri understands this. But he is oppressed — not by the church but by the Comte de Reynaud. And it is not out of dedication to the church or traditional ways that de Reynaud does this, but out of pain from his abandonment.

In the end, all the different factions in the film learn to live together. But this is not revolutionary. Because we do not start with a natural state. We start with a town that has been distorted by a very powerful man. When Vianne blows into town with the north wind, she brings not chaos but tranquility — a return to normality. This is something that liberals and conservatives alike should understand and celebrate.

I loved the movie. It is a rare film — a modern classic that Frank Capra would have made.


The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” They were saying this, testing him, so that they might have grounds for accusing him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, he straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and he was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”

28 thoughts on “Chocolat: Where Liberal and Conservative Meet

  1. When I read that review you linked to from Kendrink, I started laughing because he claims that What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was subtle. *laughs more*

    • I haven’t seen it since I saw it in the theater. I recall wondering what the big deal was. It was a pretty standard melodrama. But it did have its moments like when the mother went to get her son out of jail. Kendrick was the more reasonable reviewer, wasn’t he?

      • Yes it was. That first one was horrible in how whiny the reviewer was and how little logic he used to review the film. “Oh I am so offended because I am not Catholic but the movie pointed out the accuracy in how oppressive the Church can be! Fetch the smelling salts!”

        I think it has some gender politics involved in it, they really seem to be misogynistic and especially angry over how people learned to get along in the end without violence.

        • Oh! I hadn’t thought about that at all. But you are right: strong women, weak men. Didn’t even occur to me. The one reviewer is typical of a lot of conservatives in being pro-church but not actually religious. It’s like Reagan — or Trump! Church is good for the little people. It reminds me of a line from a wonderful film, Dean Spanley. If you haven’t seen it: you must — one of my very favorites.

          • Usually if someone gets that angry at a movie that is as innocuous as you describe Chocolat, it always seems to have to do with gender, at least in my experience.

            I need to start a written list of movies you recommend, I keep forgetting to watch them.

            • I think there’s a great deal of truth in that. Again, I haven’t seen the film. But if a woman is shown as having control in a relationship (which the image of the movie poster above suggests), it’s political correctness run amok. If a story has men behaving like sexist assholes . . . well, it’s fantasy, it’s for fun, why is anyone offended?

              Suddenly I’m thinking of “Kill Bill” for some reason. Note that the heroine is resilient, a super-sword wielder, etc. But she’s still in Bill’s throes, right up to the point where she kills him (the movie seems to imply she basically kills him because he’s corrupting their daughter.) How much cooler would those movies be if, at the end, Bill tried his manipulative shit and the heroine realized how shallow and meanspirited it had been all along?

              • You pretty much nailed it. A lot of times people don’t even realise their biases and then get mad when someone points it out because it feels like you are saying they are a bad person. They aren’t but they are not actually catching themselves in doing something rude.

                The Bride did kill Bill at the end of the movie. He gets up, takes his five steps and keels over. The Best Friend told me that he heard an alternative ending was created where there is a moonlit battle between the two but I have not seen it nor can I find any info online.

                • I think that’s the key — how pointing out stuff makes people think you’re saying they are bad. Nobody wants to and nobody needs to hear that. (We all have character flaws we should work on. Hearing “you’re bad” doesn’t make us want to work on them, it makes us depressed or angry.)

                  The more I think about “Kill Bill” the more I wish it was better. Bill’s speech about their daughter heartlessly stepping on a goldfish is compelling, Tarantino’s great at that stuff. But it makes her revenge on him about the daughter being corrupted and suggests she and Bill are really just two sides of the same person.She kills him essentially as a protective measure, not because she doesn’t fall for his bullcrap anymore.

                  I go back to “Jackie Brown,” which I think is one of the finest films made in recent memory. Jackie gets her revenge on the man who tried to kill her, but she doesn’t need to deliver it herself. The most important thing is she gets out of caring what he thinks. Let the cops arrest him or kill him, it doesn’t matter. What matters is you aren’t going to be used rottenly by other people anymore.

                  Tarantino keeps trying to make women his protagonists, and I salute him for that, but aside from “Jackie Brown” (whose characters come from Elmore Leonard) he seems incapable of imagining what goes on in women’s heads besides “I’m gonna get you back, asshole.” Not that I have much more imagination. I don’t know what’s going on in my head, much less anyone else’s. It’s why I prefer working with women or people with oppressed ethnic backgrounds. It doesn’t make me “get” them but it makes me slowly realize how many complicated things they deal with which I don’t have to deal with.

                  People are a complete mystery.

                  • I didn’t have a problem with her killing him to be honest. She was not introspective. She was never going to understand he was mainly just an abuser who preyed on younger women. And, to be fair, he needed to die.

                    Tarantino doesn’t know how to make any of his characters do anything other than seek revenge. Sure he does it supremely well but his movies don’t really evolve. But he is one of the few people in Hollywood focused on giving roles to those who are outcasts one way or another so I am okay with him being just about mindless violence punctuated with witty conversations and fantastic music. Plus, the movies are usually beautiful in how he constructs a scene.

                    • He’s a great filmmaker. He really knows how to make each segment have tension, and he adds humor to boot. I wouldn’t trade the “King Kong” sequence of “Inglorious Basterds” for anything ever made in movies. It ends stupidly, but until then it’s magnificent.

                      I’m very excited that his new one is filmed in 70mm. You’re probably too young to have seen “2001” or “Lawrence Of Arabia” filmed in 70mm, but it’s like Hi-Def on steroids. Imax science-theater films used to use 70mm, and it was amazing.

                      Maybe the first Tarantino I really liked was the final segment of “Four Rooms.” I thought “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” looked bad. That segment of “Four Rooms” looked terrific. And then he did “Jackie Brown.”

                    • I watched 2001 and did not get it at all. Then I read the book and was like “wow, this make so much more sense now.”

                      I remember watching some of those movies as a child at the Ruben H. Fleet Space Theatre on school field trips and you are right, they were spectacular. But my eyes don’t work that well any more and so lush visuals don’t do much for me any more.

                    • Really?! I didn’t understand the movie, so I read the book and was even more confused. But I was really young. Maybe I should read it again. Then again, Clarke is not that good a writer and I have other things to read.

                    • There are definitely better things to read. Like the back of your cereal box. However it did explain what was going on in the movie at least to me.

                    • I was trying to figure out the ending. But the truth is that it took me a long time to figure out that ontology was even a thing. I think I would enjoy it more now.

            • It speaks to something more general that I’ve noticed: reviews say far more about the reviewer than the film. And that’s fine! The problem is that very few of them will admit this. I hate to hear a reviewer claim that a comedy is not funny. All you can really say is that you didn’t find it funny when you saw it. One of my favorite articles is, Why So Down on Krippendorf’s Tribe? In it, I savaged a major reviewer for his review of the film. He later noticed it and tweeted it out. But he totally missed the point. He was just surprised that there were people who liked the film so much. But I’m very clear in the article that it is a mediocre film. The point is that he didn’t engage with the film. Given his job description, he should have been fired. The problem is that most reviewers are just like him.

              • I dunno about being fired for screwing up one review but possibly taken into a big scary conference room and have why his boss is displeased with him explained to him.

                I usually don’t read reviews online (I did read Ruthless Reviews since I know Devon Pack or did, he may have unfriended me since I stopped indulging in his pity parties) but I enjoy watching the Channel Awesome bunch since at least they spice it up with bits in between the review. For me, outside of some technical stuff on camera angles and whatnot, I always thought movie reviewers were giving us their opinion and we can agree with them or ignore them.

                • Yes, I used to make a point of calling them ombudsmen. And that’s a perfectly fine thing to be. But don’t pretend that you are more.

  2. I’ve never seen the film. I imagine the political criticisms against it aren’t directed at the filmmakers for being elitist snobs but at the audiences who liked it. AKA, people who watch films with foreign-language titles (this isn’t a foreign film, but it has a French-sounding title) are comfortable rich latte-drinkers, etc.

    It’s part of the ongoing culture war, which is about brand identification. And snobbery, which is definitely a thing in the arts. I’ve actually met people who said things like “how can you like Tom Waits?” because I work at a botttom-of-the-barrel-job. Well, because Waits sings well, writes good songs, and his subjects are sad people. Yet somehow liking Tom Waits is (was?) considered an “educated cool upscale professional” thing. (Maybe Waits is a snob asshole, but I guarantee you John Prine isn’t, and he’s considered cool by educated liberal sorts. Oddly Steve Goodman is considered cool by no-one. This is a crime.)

    These matters are mercurial and arbitrary like all taste fads. Auto racing took off in places that had high levels of bootlegging, as racing=fantasy dreams of outrunning the cops who just wanted to shut honest moonshiners down. As you know, it’s not just Southern. Minnesotans and Middle Californians both moonshined, and both love their classic roadsters, and both have amateur auto races still going on at regional fairgrounds.

    For awhile NASCAR signified everything that was right and true about redneck culture. Now, it’s on the decline; the people who used to wear fangear of their favorite driver are more likely to wear football stuff instead. Preferred reality-show stars (Duck Dynasty, “country-cooking” hosts, etc) vary all the time.

    Yet somehow when liberal-leaning types are silly about declaring that liking This And Only This makes you part of their tribe (and there was a time, which ended around when “Chocolat” came out, when some liberal-leaning aesthetic snobs definitely thought people who watched the “wrong” movies weren’t cool enough — now nobody reads movie reviews), well that’s just proof how elitist liberals are.

    Somehow rednecks are allowed to chastise each other for not being adequately into the latest thing and it doesn’t mean they’re snobs, it means they’ve successfully found a newer, more finely-honed Essence Of Conservatism. (What’s the carat level of purity these days? 60%? 75? 90? I suspect the 100% level would just be “Futurama”‘s HypnoToad flashing stirring images of crosses, flags, angels, cowboys, and aborted fetuses in its eyeballs.)

    Anyhoo, I don’t have a handle on this. At some “gut” level I get it, it’s about how tastes in fun entertainment supposedly define us (which is even sillier than supposing one can judge a person’s emotional compatibility with you by their favorite root vegetable.) It’s something I find interesting, as I grew up poor, went to a rich high school, and have been poor ever since, while a constant remains that insignificant tastes in amusements are a huge deal for people across the spectrum. (It’s almost actually easier to debate politics and religion!)

    • Tom Waits lives a couple of miles from me. He is considered something of a jerk. It’s mostly that he doesn’t want to be a celebrity. He doesn’t like people rushing up to him and asking for autographs. I understand, but I’m not sympathetic. It’s the business you chose and it is part of why you are a wealthy person. Get over it. But he is not an elite in the sense that conservatives think of it.

      It’s always a problem when a sport becomes about billionaire owners and millionaire participants. Before I was born, my father raced hardtops on dirt tracks (maybe also on wooden tracks — I’d have to ask him). That was when people built and maintained their own cars. (It’s also when one-third of all stock car racers ended their careers in death.) It was real. Now it’s just corporate BS. Great song: Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy).

      I think the problem with the redneck/elite thing is that it is a false narrative. There are a lot of liberals who are crazy for football. It’s just that stuff “elites” like are defined as liberal. As we know, Republicans drink more lattes then Democrats. They drive more Volvos. And so on. I always use the term “power elite” because there are different kinds of elites. There are educational elites — most of whom don’t make much money. I certainly have to include myself in this category. But I embrace it. There is nothing inauthentic about being educated. This country was founded by a bunch of over-educated people. Would they really look at Louie Gohmert and think, “He’s the legacy I always intended!” No.

      There is an argument to be made against Chocolat. It panders to the audience. But why is it wrong to pander to the audience when it is liberal-ish as in Chocolat but not when it is conservative as in John Wick? And the crazy thing is that a lot of the people who panned the film explicitly noted that it was a fable. And then they went on to complain that it was a fable.

      I wrote in a comment to Elizabeth last night about my occasional transcendent experiences with art. It is worth trudging through a lot of mediocre stuff to have one of those experiences. You aren’t going to have that experience in some silly entertainment. But silly entertainments are more dependable. It’s not that we watch someone like Chantal Akerman because we enjoy being suicidal; it’s because she is capable, now and then, of expanding the world for us. But I fully admit, most of the time, I’ll choose Rocky and Bullwinkle.

      • I’d like a link, I find it hard to keep track of all the comments. Sounds like a good discussion.

        It’s been a long time since I had a transcendent experience with art. It’s probably different for everyone. For me, it’s when art takes me both inside and outside my head. I’m experiencing someone else’s way of seeing the world that is brilliantly expressed through their craft, so I feel what someone else feels and become transported from my perspective into theirs. Yet their perspective seems honest and true because it doesn’t violate my experiences. It makes me think of my experiences in a new way, but it doesn’t jar me into thinking “no, this is completely wrong.”

        I think a lot of terrible pandering art caters to the shallow perceptions people have of their experiences and doesn’t challenge them to reconsider how others might have had similar events in their lives while seeing them differently. To me this is the worst kind of garbage. It’s using one’s creative impulse for the sole purpose of making money, and it debases creator and audience both.

        Fun silliness, OTOH, doesn’t try to make you empathize with another way of how humans can feel pain or joy. It simply says “on some days, I regard this common thing in a really goofy/funny/scary/exciting way! See if you like it!” It’s not transcendent but it’s not contemptuous of the audience either; it’s done with generosity.

        That Croce song is great; all of this week’s Croce songs have been great. He reminds me a lot of Steve Goodman with a better “this is a lousy song” filter (Goodman’s best friend, John Prine, had an overactive “lousy song” filter — Goodman put out too much half-assed stuff and Prine not enough.)

        Because my brain is completely fried by life, here is (audio only) a link I may have shared before — my favorite cover medley by anybody:

        And my favorite cover song by anybody:

        Of course you know “City Of New Orleans.” Everyone does. Nobody knows who wrote it, everyone knows the song.

        Croce, Goodman, Carole King, the immortal Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Cat Stevens, it’s like they took the folk tradition and removed politics from it in an obvious way after audiences were exhausted by the 60’s/70’s trauma. I don’t think they wimped out. Politics are still in there. They just become more personal. It’s the politics of self-advocacy instead of big movements. (Yet standing up for oneself is the soul of big movements.)

        It’s almost like they shook, not stirred, the straightforward literal Dylan with the evocatively obtuse personal Dylan, coming out with songs that used a little bit of allusion and metaphor to express common emotions in their own tone. (Dylan even did this too, dialing back his reluctance to share personal feelings on “Blood On The Tracks” — although that album has some “Blonde On Blonde” mystery songs on it too, like your favorite “Jack Of Hearts” and mine, “Tangled”/”Idiot Wind.”)

        Tom Petty did a little bit of this with his album “Wildflowers.” And of course Elvis C. For the most part, I tend to hear modern musicians eschewing that middle ground of allusive/elusive for either very direct or very cryptic. Nothing wrong with any of these approaches. I merely find it odd that many post-folk songwriters used that middle ground in the 1970’s and fewer do today.

        • Wow, that was quite a list. For the record, I probably like “Tangled Up in Blue” most. But “Jack of Hearts” obsesses me. I’m also incredibly fond of “If You See Her, Say Hello.” But I love the whole album. Every song on it is great.

          The medley is… interesting. I love “The Dutchman.”

  3. Elizabeth — sorry about your eyes. Everyone has shit fail as we get older. I can’t watch 3D movies, which is fine by me. But my gums are terrible, so I can’t eat tortilla chips anymore, the flaky bits get stuck in there. I miss tortilla chips!

  4. “Treats Catholicism as folly” is telling. Not “unfairly paints the church with the foibles of one uptight man”. No, the position is “Yes that’s what the church is all about and I’ll thank you not to poke fun.” It’s like the old talk show appearance with the Monty Python players and some manner of priest in a ridiculous purple costume who radiates about 1000 watts of privilege decrying the vulgar mockery at hand. Except English, so he would be C of E. Same difference. If you want an honest treatment of Catholicism go see Spotlight. Doesn’t really work in a comedy.

    • Of course the movie isn’t even about Catholicism. What we see is that even the church is held hostage by this rich man. Although it says much for the writing and Alfred Molina’s performance that the character is sympathetic throughout the movie. I’ve decided I should put together a “feel good” package and it should include three films: Chocolat, Dean Spanley, and His Girl Friday. I’m not sure what non-film items will go in it.

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