I can only think of one advantage of not growing up in a Christian family: I never had to give up anything for Lent. I suppose I could have grown up Baptist and had the best of both worlds. And in fact,when I finally became a Christian I did ‘grow up’ in Baptist churches. And there,as is sometimes the case with non-Conformists, I occasionally found myself so disconnected from the liturgical year that most of the major festivals were usually gone before I ’d figured out they were coming. What was that fir tree doing in the sanctuary last week anyway?
A couple of years ago, I finally succumbed to the influence of some of the Anglicans I worked with, and I gave up biscuits for 40 days. Naturally, I didn’t include Jaffa Cakes because Jaffa Cakes are, as their name suggests, ‘cakes ’not biscuits. This is, as I understand it, entirely consistent with the letter of European Union Law but my family, never to be intimidated by Brussels, accused me of Pharisaic sophistry. To them, exchanging discs of bland Rich Tea biscuits for discs of moist sponge, topped with tangy marmalade and a thick layer of dark chocolate was a patent act of indulgence, not a penitent deed of denial. Bah, to them – God will be my judge. Let she who is without sin cast the first Malteser.
The relationship between sin and things sweet and wonderful has a long history in the popular mind. For a decade or so cream cakes were advertised as ‘naughty but nice,’ whilst other confections were described as ‘sinfully delicious ’. Occasionally,the devil would make a special guest appearance to reinforce the point. Presumably, if it ’s sinful enough for him, it must be good – so to speak. The connection between food and sin presumably begins in Eden, though there the attractiveness of the fruit is not its most compelling feature, nor indeed was its forbiddenness. Rather it is the promise that when Adam and Eve taste it, they will be like God. Later, gluttony becomes one of the seven deadly sins. More worrying is the fact that, over the centuries, one of the most popular and credible stereotypes of Christianity is of a dour, lemon juice asceticism that condemns all the pleasures of this world as the slip roads of the highways to hell.
It was,of course, no coincidence that the film Chocolat was released in Lent. The story is set in Lent and both Joanne Harris’ original book Chocolat and Hallstrom’s film share the same aim: to position the idea of Lenten self-denial as an evil that is a symptom of wider intolerance, hypocrisy and life-denying sterility. The tactic of focusing on Lent as a metaphor for the entire Christian life is about as fair as berating an apple blossom for not being a crisp, juicy Granny Smith. Apple blossom is a season in the life of an apple tree but not the only one. Lent is a season in the Christian year but not the only one. And if it is true that we are indeed called to take up our cross and deny ourselves, that self-denial is a path to an abundant life of loving self-giving, not a self-centred judgmentalism. But the unfairness of Chocolat ’s comparison will not make it any the less compelling to those who would see Christianity precisely in terms of a denial of life.
Chocolat comes to Britain in two distinct forms.The film – smooth, sweet, apparently innocent and frothy, dallying with its occult themes but never taking them altogether seriously. And the book – darker, more complex, with a slightly bitter after-taste that lingers on the tongue.
The plot is simple enough:a woman and her daughter arrive in a small French town, a town locked into a petty judgmentalism, controlled in the novel by a 30-year-old priest and in the book by a 40-something Count. In both versions, the culture of the town precludes genuine human flourishing. It is not Lent that does this but a hollow doctrine of what it means to lead a holy life and the tendency to wards pettiness in the dynamics of small town life.
Our heroine, the chocolateer opens a chocolaterie in Lent – heaven forbid – right opposite the Church. It seems, like the bright colours of her clothes, to be a deliberate act of defiance, a declaration of war. And so it is understood by the priest who brings all his power to bear to banish the chocolateer from the town. In the ensuing skirmishes, the dark secrets of many emerge – a battered wife finds refuge, and finally self-confidence and freedom at the chocolaterie, a grandmother finds a way to connect to the grandson that her daughter forbids her to see,the priest is exposed as an erstwhile arsonist. And in the end our heroine, in the book at least, joyously and deliberately conceives a second child with a gypsy who will never know that he is the father.
In the book, the white witchery of the heroine Vianne is central to the character. Certainly, she uses it sparingly and will not use her powers to delve too deep into the lives of the villagers that surround her. But she performs rites to run the ghosts out of her house, forks her fingers at the priest under her sales counter, consults the Tarot and so on. She is blown in on the North Wind and is ultimately the prisoner of forces she cannot control. She may prove to be the exorcist of the town demons but she cannot stay to enjoy the fruit of that labour – like Cain she is condemned to wander.
And,of course, we are meant to approve of this exotic single mother with her pagan paraphernalia and her ability to bring people together. But Harris ’antipathy towards the church is overplayed –her villain priest is too obsessive and the terms of engagement between church and chocolateer too clichéd to be effective except among people for whom this negative view of the church is self-evident. But such a stereotype is self-evident to many and the novel has, alas, met with critical and popular success.
In the more playful and wittier film ver-sion, the central opposition is not with the priest but with the town Count. He is a religious man to be sure but not the only representative of the church, even if he writes the new priest ’s sermons for him. And in the film, there are fewer dark secrets and many more splendid transformations: an old man is encouraged to begin a relationships with a widower who had been mourning the husband who fell in the first world war 50 years before; a couple whose sex life had died find new fire; the grandmother not only finds a way to speak to her grandson but is able to release him and his controlling mother from their bondage. Life abounds. And as for our chocolate healer, she is finally able to resist the call of the North wind and at last settle down - with just the one daughter. If this communal healing through chocolate reminds you of the communal healing through haute cuisine in Babette ’s Feast then it is a reasonable parallel. Food can be a means of lifting the spirit, and a generous feast can generate greater generosity of spirit.
In Chocolat , all these great liberations and this great release of love comes to their climax on Easter Sunday. The town is ‘resurrected ’by paganism, or at best by chocolate and canny people skills. In the film,the priest lifts the burden of false denial from his parishioners by at last preaching a sermon of his own. He focuses on the humanity of Christ and calls on his flock not to define themselves by what they deny themselves,but by what they create,not by whom they exclude but whom they include and embrace. It ’s not a bad or inappropriate message and its warming glow makes it all the more difficult to see the film ’s potentially corrosive impact on people’s view of Christianity. It matters not what you believe – it matters that you affirm life. As Milan Kundera put it, “When the heart speaks,the mind finds it indecent to object ”. Ultimately,this makes the film a potentially much greater threat to the Church than the book because the film seems so much more benign. The clearly defined opposition of Harris’ darker text means that you can feel the prejudice. In the film,it would be easier to be blinded by all that we might affirm and by Juliette Binoche’s luminous smile and splendid performance.
This is the power of great art – to make us see the world from another point of view. And it is the danger in art. As art draws us in to see the world differently, it can also bypass our doctrinal defences. Who notices that the first sexual consummation in Romeo and Juliet is before they are married?
Does it not seem churlish to point it out?
Filmmakers have to make us care about their heroes and heroines. If we don ’t the film will fail. So empathic devices,as they are called,are vital – the hero is talented, the hero is handsome, the hero had a bad childhood, the hero is the victim of injustice, and so on. All devices that serve to put us on the hero ’s side. That work done, we find ourselves caring rather more about whether our hero dies than we care about the fate of the people he kills,and the grief of their mothers and fathers, wives, children and communities. And, importantly, we are usually more amenable to swallowing whatever values the hero or heroine espouses.
Another Hallstrom film, The Cider House Rules ,is a fine example of this.Our heroic doctors care for orphans so they are heroes. They also perform abortions on young women for whom the alternative might be death through some botched backstreet operation. We love our heroes because they care for abandoned little boys and girls. And we love them because they save young women from the risk of a painful death at the hands of some quack.
The halo effect of one altruistic activity may blind us to the fact that performing abortions usually has nothing to do with preserving the mother’s life and everything to do with killing babies.
This is how art works – making us see the world differently,sometimes in the service of grace and truth and sometimes in the service of falsehood and bondage. In the case of Chocolat , the life-affirming message to eat, dance and love is one that our hedonistic culture hardly needs to hear more about – this they already know. What they don ’t know is that the path to true joy is not about the denial of pleasure but about the denial of self, about the total surrender of the self to the Lordship of him who alone can bring lasting joy. And that is a message that Chocolat in both versions conceals with wondrous skill.
Still,if you want to make my day – coffee creams or Bendicks Bitter Mints or Cadbury ’s Fruit & Nut will do beautifully.