Chocolat, upon a first watch, is a charming and relatively harmless love story, albeit slow to develop. Its overt themes, at times, come across as trite wolf-in-sheep’s clothing, and these developments follow oft-overused stereotypes. We’ll notice that Chocolat‘s characters don’t exhibit special traits: enhanced strength or intelligence, troubled exposition or abusive relationship history, exaggerated wealth or circumstance. 2000’s Chocolat earned its Best Picture nomination through strength of motif (mostly) and acting (somewhat). Further, the more one watches films looking for certain motif strains, the more obvious when one immediately and strikingly sticks out. For Chocolat, this motif is magical realism, the tendency for everyday, or inconspicuous, objects to exhibit supernatural properties. The author or auteur will (often) use this technique to foil, or exacerbate, a truly deeply seeded idea, usually one that has a negative connotation. In Chocolat, prescriptively, the use of chocolate is used to exacerbate the concept of hegemony, stasis and resistance to change, and it quite successfully succeeds.
The use of magical realism in a French context is both unexpected and cognitively dissonant. The French, historically, have been associated with amour and whimsy; we never read, see or hear about (or: our media and “history” doesn’t present) the relative orthodoxy of non-Parisian France, pre-telecommunication. A closer look, though, will demonstrate religious intensity skewed heavily toward Catholicism, and that this strain of Christianity overwhelmingly includes older generations: setting Chocolat during a modern reformation period reflected the tyrannical hegemony of stasis. Because overall mood had already begun to shift, Director Lassie Hallström, drawing from Joanie Harris’ 1999 novel of the same name, can cause enough of a “stir” without that “stir” being the sole cause of the action. In other words: Chocolat attempts to unpack a time when order and orthodoxy had been accepted (or forced-accepted) and any deviation was considered immoral. Magical realism attempts to deconstruct this theory and reject the hypothesis through absurdity and fanciful actions: because we, the audience know that the plot is technically impossible, we automatically shift to attempt to realize, “what does this mean?” When executed properly, this effect is powerful; when executed poorly, we get two sequels of The Expendables and four-plus of Transformers. For Chocolat, our beacon for magical realism is Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche), a woman with gypsy-like wanderlust and an uncanny ability to produce particular chocolate to suit particular tastes. The chocolat is, of course, a small metaphor within the realm of Chocolat‘s heady magical realism motif. Continue reading