We all like sweet things. Whether it is big or small, the general consensus is that if we taste something we like we want more of it. Chocolate surely is at the epicentre of this as when it is displayed on a cinema screen our eyes become big saucers taking all of the velveteen goodness in. Very few are aware of this but the representation of chocolate within film has always been important in the telling of a particular story. For example it can be used as a romantic gift like in Love Actually or utilised for comical antics in Bridesmaids it has an enduring function. Two of the most important films to express this are Chocolat (Lasse Hallstrom, 2000) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton, 2005). The reason I have chosen these two films specifically is twofold. One, they both have chocolate in their titles and two; they use it in an extremely imaginative and inventive way. Alas, before I get a barrage of abuse for not using the original Willy Wonka as an example, let me say that Burton’s remake highlights the darker side of the sweet stuff and is an all-round masterpiece of confectionary delight. That being said, I have nothing against the original!
Let’s begin with Chocolat, this film centres on Vianne Rocher, an unmarried wanderer who stumbles into the quiet town French town with her daughter Anouk. As she becomes acquainted with the strict moral values of the community it becomes clear that when she opens a small chocolate shop during lent sparks are gonna fly! Thus, right from the beginning chocolate is at the forefront, tackling social morality and pushing the boundaries of what is deemed suitable for the town folk. Indeed, it offers the viewer a way into several strands of the narrative. For example, it livens up the sexually stale relationship of a married couple, investigates Armande Voizin’s (played by the timeless Judi Dench) diabetes, the violent relationship between Josephine and Serge Muscat (Lena Olin and Peter Stormare) and the depression of the main antagonist Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina). Considering its importance within the narrative Hallstrom never forces it down the viewer’s throats, but lets the cinematography merely observe the power that it has over people and, indeed the social taboo that it creates.
The interiors of the shop also explore its origins, as brown counter tops and South American pottery allude to the discovery of the cocoa bean. The cinematography aids in this as there are several close-up and establishing shots of the shop window where the delicious treats are viewable to the public from the main square. As the narrative develops, chocolate becomes more than just a treat, it becomes a life-line as characters begin to embrace its hypnotic and healing properties. This culminates in the smoothing out of social prejudices against undesirables like boat travellers, in particular Vianne’s love interest Roux (Johnny Depp) and the challenging of staunch Christian values.
Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the other hand utilises garish colours and imaginative art direction to highlight the quirky role of the chocolate. As many will know, the narrative follows a little boy named Charlie who gets a golden ticket to go to the magical factory where all manner of Willy Wonka’s sweets are made. What makes the chocolate in this version so interesting is that it is represented as both a threat and a reward. The factory is like a Garden of Eden where temptation and the consumption of chocolate can lead you in pretty hot water! For example the eternally rotund Augustus Gloop falls into the chocolate river and gets sucked into the fountain. It is as if the film is utilising sweets as a teaching tool, educating children that greed is never good.
Johnny Depp as the off-the-wall Willy Wonka is priceless as are the oompa loompa’s, who churn out priceless songs after child after child meets their unsavoury end. Similar to Chocolat, Burton refuses to exploit the chocolate but its presence is always felt through the character’s own feelings towards it. For example, by getting the golden ticket that was in a chocolate wrapper, Charlie has the ability to get his family out of poverty. It is this motivation that drives the narrative and as such when it reaches its conclusion, the audience is uplifted.
All in all, chocolate has always been a narrative device used to forward a characters journey in film. Both Chocolat and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may be extreme examples, however throughout the history of cinema this sweet confectionary has graced many a scene on the big screen.