‘Chocolat’ the latest in long line of films to focus on the sensuality of the palate
By Michelle Goldberg
IN FILMS, BOOKS, and magazines of the past two decades, a forbidden pleasure has been brazenly unveiled. It has been lushly, lovingly photographed, help up as the antidote to stultifying societies, as the source of sensual liberation, or as a passion so terrifying that it annihilates our dignity and reduces our egos to quivering plasma.
I’m not talking about sex–that’s old news. No, the newest source of pop-culture fascination and bawdy celebration is food. In the age of The Zone diet, celebrity wasting syndrome, and 24-Hour Fitness, all kinds of media now fancy themselves daring for reveling in the joys of eating and the force of appetite.
This season brought us Chocolat, the latest in a long line of food porn, food romance, and food confessionals that includes films like Babette’s Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, and Big Night, books like Isabel Allende’s Aphrodite and Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything, and magazines like Bon Appetit and Saveur.
Lasse Hallstrom’s new film Chocolat is a fable about the power of food and pleasure to overcome a small town’s puritanical prudery. Juliette Binoche plays Vianne, an exuberant free spirit who wafts into a French village with her young daughter and opens a chocolate shop (during Lent, no less).
This outrages the town’s fastidious mayor, who vows to drive her out of business and accuses her of being in league with the devil. His pieties are no match for Vianne’s confections,though.
A cup of her pepper-spiked hot chocolate is enough to awaken the zesty hedonist in her cranky and bitter landlady, while her rose creams spur a broken, abused wife toward blooming emancipation.
Romances are born and feuds are resolved. Throughout are luscious, tantalizing shots of swirling pots of melted chocolate, moist cake, and earthy crushed cocoa.
Chocolat seems directly inspired by Babette’s Feast, the 1987 Danish film about the transcendent power of a gourmet French meal. In that movie, a Parisian woman exiled in a tiny, harsh Danish village wins the lottery and asks her employers–two sweet, timid, pious old maids–for permission to give them one real French dinner for a village celebration. They acquiesce but soon panic, fearing perdition for allowing such flagrant indulgence.
Together the townspeople vow to eat the food without noticing it, keeping their thoughts turned heavenward.
Babette’s Feast is a far better film than Chocolat in part because it respects even its most sanctimonious characters, and it doesn’t conceive victory as overturning their age-old beliefs. Instead, as the townspeople consume Babette’s turtle soup and fine champagne, a glow settles over them and their spirituality is heightened and expanded.
Gourmet food here is almost like Ecstasy–whatever you’re doing, it makes it better.
Nevertheless, like Chocolat, the best parts of Babette’s Feast are its lingering shots of food being prepared, served, and savored. The camera caresses trays of truffle-stuffed quail resting in golden puffed pastry, ruby goblets of red wine, and inky caviar. After the relentlessly drab, austere images that dominate the beginning of the film, these shots are their own kind of feast.
What’s interesting about these films, as well as Big Night and the scads of food memoirs that line bookstores, is why there’s so much drama in simply admitting to the intense pleasures of taste.
ON ONE LEVEL, of course, all these delicacies are intended as a metaphor for sex or as a symbol of female sensuality vs. male rationality. That’s the theme of Allende’s 1998 book Aphrodite, a musing on eating and eroticism in which she writes, “The most intense carnal pleasure, enjoyed at leisure in a clandestine, rumpled bed, a perfect combination of caresses, laughter, and intellectual games, has the taste of a baguette, prosciutto, French cheese, and Rhine wine.”
Chocolat certainly attempts to give its food a similarly sexual cast. An old woman confesses to her priest about eating chocolate, “I thought just one little taste . . . it tortures you with pleasure.” Vianne flusters the mayor by offering him a white chocolate-tipped “Venus’ Nipple.” When he finally attacks the chocolate shop, the first thing he destroys is a chocolate Venus de Milo, which he angrily knifes.
But this explanation doesn’t fully explain the recent fetishization of food. After all, in our sex-saturated age, carnality hardly needs to be sublimated. What little sex there is in Chocolat isn’t treated with anything approaching the drooling reverence implicit in shots of Vianne’s treats.
Food here isn’t just a symbol. The mayor is finally undone when, in the midst of his rampage, a speck of chocolate touches his lip, sparking an epic gorge that leaves him chocolate-smeared and unconscious overnight in Vianne’s shop window.
Yet the mayor is never otherwise depicted as a lecher–even after his ostensible liberation, he’s still chaste and proper in a burgeoning courtship. Food is his temptation and his salvation.
Sex is almost beside the point.
Similarly, in Aphrodite, the descriptions of sex lack the rhapsodic passion of Allende’s writing about food. A chapter grandly called “The Orgy” is about what to serve at a bacchanal, not what to do at one.
“What would I serve at my orgy? If I had unlimited resources, I would offer the guests platters with raw and cooked shellfish, meat, game birds, and cold fish, salads, sweets, and fruits–especially grapes, which always appear in films about the Roman empire.”
It’s almost as if the sex is just an alibi for all this food talk, since these days it’s far more socially acceptable to be obsessed with fornication than with dinner.
FOR PROOF, see Henry Jaglom’s 1990 film Eating, which is like The Boys in the Band of food movies. A hysterical wallow through middle-class women’s starvation, shameful bingeing, food guilt, and eating disorders, it’s the other side of films like Chocolat, and it demonstrates why so many artists feel the need to defiantly assert their appetites.
Eating is both so scathingly honest and screechingly melodramatic about many women’s anguished relationship to food that it’s hard to figure out whether it’s empathetic or subtly misogynist.
Set at a multigenerational, all-female birthday party in Southern California, it’s full of women hiding in corners and bathrooms to shovel cake in their faces, scenes and confessions of bulimia, angry rants and despairing laments about dieting and the eternal pull of the refrigerator door.
Nor is this the only film that dwells on eating and hunger as perversity. There’s Peter Greenaway’s 1989 The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, a gaudy Grand Guignol largely set in a restaurant and culminating in a scene where a villain is forced at gunpoint to eat a dead man trussed and roasted like a pig–revenge for the villain’s cruelty and his insatiable gluttony.
In Seven, a gourmand is forced by a serial killer to eat himself to death. And the film version of American Psycho dwells endlessly on the absurd meticulousness and hollow innovations of nouvelle cuisine, evidence of the stylized emptiness of all protagonist Patrick Batemen’s pleasures.
Just as sexual liberation would be meaningless without sexual shame, so films like Chocolat wouldn’t make any sense without the deep sense of ambivalence about the way we eat that’s dramatized by these movies. Images of Babette’s perfectly browned birds or Vianne’s pots of melted chocolate wouldn’t be so resonant if such foods weren’t forbidden or fraught with guilt.
Food porn, like the regular kind, may reveal a culture’s lusts, but it’s also a key to its repressions.
From the February 8-14, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.