Death by Chocolate
By Elise Hartley
By its very taxonomy, chocolate oozes with connotations of divinity and mystical power. Indeed, many groups of people have elevated Theobroma cacao, or “food of the gods,” to a source of spiritual nourishment since its discovery. The use of chocolate for its transcendent properties began with the Mayans, spread to the Aztecs (who believed chocolate a gift from their god of wisdom, Quetzalcoatl) and extended into 16th century Spanish monastic life (Morton & Morton, pp 6-11). Yet, whereas the origin of chocolate and its production history incorporated principles of celibacy and piety, chocolate consumption also represented contrasting notions of sinful indulgence and promiscuity. For instance, the Mayan ruler Montezuma drank bitter chocolate for personal arousal just as the French aristocracy of the Baroque period preferred to enjoy the treat in bed. To further complicate chocolate’s duality, church officials once held the product in high-esteem. In fact, 17th century London Catholics permitted chocolate consumption during Lent, qualifying the rich substance as a liquid, therefore not breaking the fast (p.19). Considering these opposing interpretations of the luxurious food, it appears chocolate has both transcended “creature cravings” and inspired them, perpetuating both carnal desire and heavenly refinement. Too often humans find themselves in the middle of this dichotomy, as our celestial dreams compete with innate urges. This screen shot from the 2000 film Chocolat displays an individual who fell victim to this conflict, over-indulged as a result of extreme resistance to temptation. Ironically, the still’s subject, Comte de Reynaud, lies muddied and poisoned by the very thing he tried to avoid, suggesting a need for balance when trying achieve moral superiority and satisfy the body.
Comte de Reynaud’s determination to abstain (and have others do so as well) from the delicacies of exotic Mayan chocolatier, Vianne drives the film’s central theme. True to the structure of many French towns during the 1950s, the beginning of the film depicts the church and its leaders as the pillars of the community, together a tangible representation of the town’s moral standing. The mayor of the petite French village, Comte de Reynaud sees it his duty to preach and police the religious standards of his civilians and in many ways extends his political title to role of master parishioner. In turn, the real priest, Père Henri, becomes a puppet to the Comte’s authoritative but dedicated demands. Hardly ever cracking a genuine smile, the Comte serves also as disciplinarian, a one-man neighborhood watch from supposed evil influence. In this case, the non-Christian Vianne, travelling gypsy, Roux and of course, the Mayan chocolate are the largest threat to the Comte’s dreams of religious purity and municipal order.
Unfortunately, for the Comte, his ordering of parishioners not to eat the rich morsels of chocolate or fraternize with its maker only builds up more internal struggle. This is because while the Comte attempts to elevate himself to a god-like state, he is not immune to animalistic wanting. Therefore, the Comte’s constant fight to ward off thoughts of chocolate and the sweet, sensual satiation it provides only fuels his Id, his deep-seated unfiltered thirsts. Freudian psychology argues that this pressure must be released frequently in order to maintain a healthy mental state. Yet, instead of responding to his desires, Comte lets the pressure build up and succeeds to resist temptation until almost the very end of the film when on the eve of Easter he explodes with ravenous hunger, gorging on every truffle and piece of fudge without hardly chewing. Yet, instead of receiving desired satisfaction, the Comte consumes chocolate to the point of intoxication. Blinded by intense wanting, the Comte cannot even enjoy his feast.
This shot portrays the morning after the Comte’s disillusionment and binge. The ganache represents the figurative blood from his brutality and lingers on his clothes, fingers and mouth. The Comte is curled up in a fetal position, mouth open to emphasize the undignified and childlike nature of his behavior. The remnants of his barbaric actions are on display as the Comte lies in the storefront window for the public to see. In this case, it’s Père Henri, the priest once bullied by the Comte, who is the first witness to the Comte’s shame. Yet, while Père Henri’s reaction is hidden in this shot, his actions immediately following suggest that he is intensely moved by what he sees. As such, the shot represents a pivotal turning point in the film’s thematic progression.
Instead of using the Comte as a scapegoat or even punishing him, Père Henri preaches a different aspect of Christian doctrine. The once frightened Priest finds a new, more confident voice. With regards to chocolate and sin, Père Henri advocates to the entire parish on the holiest day of the year that faith is not a series of abstentions from evil but repeated acts of kindness to others and to ourselves. As a result of the pictured emotional breakdown the rightful religious order can be restored. With the church’s support, chocolate redeems its place as a form of spiritual and emotional nourishment. Yet, heeding Père Henri’s words and the Comte’s actions, the film argues for moderation in addition top pleasure when consuming chocolate. Thus, the film’s resolution mirrors how chocolate has functioned as both a divine and desirable substance within past and present cultures. From Mayan ritual to monastic life to the modern producer, chocolate remains an elixir of life that should be sipped guiltlessly.
Morton, M and Morton, F. Chocolate An Illustrated History New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.