Lasse Hallström is gaining a reputation as a director fond of creating movies that make audiences think. Hallström loves to throw curve balls. The Cider House Rules reveled in half-truths and moral mindbenders. Chocolat follows close behind. Vianne is a French chocolatier. She’s spent her life drifting from village to village tempting locals with her sumptuous treats. Of course, chocolate serves as a metaphor here. As does the wind (in a way that makes one think of Mary Poppins). "The sly wind blew in from the north," narrates Vianne’s daughter Anouk, just as she and her mother find themselves in yet another unsuspecting town.
Vianne doesn’t go to church. And Mayor de Reynaud chalks that up against her. She sells sweets during Lent. That’s another strike. And to make matters worse, she’s disrupting his town’s calm sobriety. War is declared. It’s the mayor against Vianne’s godless invasion of truffles. The townspeople are caught in the middle, torn between their solemn traditions and a rapidly growing lust for indulgence. In the end, the town doesn’t stand a chance. Vianne seems to know exactly what kind of chocolate each person craves. Indeed, her accuracy is nearly magical, as are her confections.
positive elements: Vianne does not discriminate among persons. She is kind to those who abuse her. Even the mayor benefits from her generosity. She refuses to allow the town’s climate of fear and isolation to keep her from being friendly and openhearted. That said, many of the film’s other positive messages are left wide open to interpretation. The townspeople learn that tradition for tradition’s sake serves no purpose (but to what ideals do they then devote themselves?). Open laughter and frivolity replaces furtive glances and dour expressions (but to what do they owe this new spark of vitality?). Vianne isn’t bringing the freshness of God’s truth to this town, she’s bringing ... chocolate. So what kind of chocolate is it? Moviegoers will arrive at vastly different answers.
spiritual content: Pere Henri shepherds his small Catholic congregation with trepidation. He is intimidated and bossed around by the mayor. The mayor even edits sermons before Pere preaches them. Outside the church walls, the mayor preaches penitence and damnation every chance he gets. And it’s clear that his motivation has a lot more to do with maintaining his power over the community than it does with any kind of sorrow over sin. He’s convinced that Vianne’s chocolates are morsels from hell, and does everything in his power to run Vianne out on a rail. He’s appalled at the very idea of eating chocolate during Lent—the precise time Vianne sets up her shop. Other scenes reveal a harsh bias against things of the Church. Sacraments are trivialized (communion is juxtaposed with eating a cookie) and moral fortitude is ridiculed.
nudity and sexual content: One of Vianne’s chocolates acts like a double dose of Viagra, prompting one of the town’s married couples to revive a flagging sex life (the act is implied with a closing shutter and brief sound effects). Another sex scene features breast nudity, but shadows obscure most of the detail. Vianne herself has no inhibitions about sex. Her promiscuity is evidenced in a comment made by her daughter, Anouk. When confronted with the fact that she has no father, Anouk responds that she does have a father, she just doesn’t know who he is. Vianne consummates a fledgling love affair with Roux (a "river rat" she befriends). Their tryst is only implied (kissing before, unbuttoned clothing after). Also, one of Vianne’s chocolate sculptures is of a nude woman.
violent content: An abusive husband assaults his wife and Vianne. His drunken blows are stilled when his wife brains him with a skillet. The man later sets fire to a boat, producing a spectacular blaze.
crude or profane language: The Lord’s name is abused four times. A half-dozen other mild profanities also arise.
drug and alcohol content: Men sit around a table in a café, playing cards, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. One man gets slobbering drunk, but his drunkenness is not glorified or excused. Wine is consumed at a party.
other negative elements: A young boy integral to the plot is fascinated with death, blood and gore. He sketches images of mangled bodies and a dead bird. Vianne and the boy’s grandmother encourage him to visit them, even though his mother has forbidden it. Granted, his mother is being overprotective, but her wishes are grossly devalued.
conclusion: "I heard she’s a radical, I heard she’s an atheist," gossip the god-fearing townsfolk. "If you haven’t seen the chocolaterie, you might want to take a look," the mayor tells the priest, "It’s important to know one’s enemies." And so it goes. On the surface, it would seem that Chocolat decries organized religion while touting the virtues of decadence and indulgence.Instead, Lasse Hallström seems to be—unintentionally, perhaps—driving the stake down past true godliness into the heart of human traditions that pretend to be godly. The key is found about half-way through the film when the town’s priest unsuccessfully tries to convince the mayor that Jesus taught kindness and inclusion, not isolation and disdain.Then, in a final sermon (on Easter Sunday), the priest enjoins his flock to begin embracing life as Jesus did, with kindness and tolerance. He pleads with them to measure their spirituality by the things they embrace, rather than the things they spurn. Grand words. Unfortunately, tolerance in Hallström’s Chocolat world includes turning a blind eye to, among other things, sexual sin. There’s no middle ground. He leaves no room for a healthy, John 10:10 walk with God. One is either firmly ensnared in drab, empty traditions, or joyously released, left to indulge in a life of reckless abandon and passion. Real joy is found on neither extreme, rather it flows from a consistent fellowship with God. And that fellowship engenders a life of morality and laughter, two things presented as incompatible in Chocolat.