The first two minutes of the film Chocolat (2000) are highly revealing as to the concept of what film academic S. Brent Plate describes in his book Religion and Film (2008) as two ‘contrasting spaces’ which essentially represent two ‘contrasting worlds.’ During this introductory segment the viewer is able to become accustomed to (through a number of cinematic lingual elements) a central strand in the film’s narrative; the way in which regimented religious structure and pleasure driven business can become two conflicting sectors in society.
The first thing heard in the film is piano playing musical notes on a higher register; Rachel Portman’s score suggests a tranquillity and the viewer may feel enticed; yet the fact that it is played in a minor key suggests that something is foreboding, perhaps this calmness and peace will soon disappear. This is relevant as the order of the town is destroyed when the new chocolate shop appears.
The first titles that appear are basic in their format; this simplicity matches the feel of the town we will later visit. The town is a place which on the surface of things seems devoid of modern complications that perhaps the church feels it is able to keep in order. Beyond this simplicity, the white and black colours suggest that their actions may be viewed as one of two things; right or wrong, which contrasts the complexities of the confectionery seller with her questionable morality.
Beyond the titles, the first things filmed are what look like clouds, which the camera glides through. The viewer may assume that we are now descending through the clouds from somewhere high up in the sky; are we being told that God is watching? This could be true when seen in relation to the church and it’s aims. However, when the camera moves beyond these apparent clouds, we see that we are not descending from the sky, rather moving horizontally through what looks like mist. This illusion could well imply that the supposed divine intentions of the town’s religious leaders are in no way inflicted by a higher power, rather by human will.
The long shot of the entire town reveals a number of things; firstly the size of the town; it is a small place where presumably not many people live, which suggests that any changes to daily life will be noticed by all of the town’s inhabitants and that any sort of control; be it political, criminal, commercial or religious, won’t take much to create a stir.
Secondly this long shot establishes the position of the town; it is high up on a hill and in the middle of the countryside. This could well mean that the town is difficult to reach and maybe is a place that is untainted by the proverbial ‘big dark world’ around it. This sets the film up as the shop owner moves into the town and is a modern and fresh addition to a town which is steeped in traditional values.
Thirdly this long shot reveals the church as the tallest and most central landmark of the town. The viewers eyes are immediately drawn to it, which serves the purpose of it being the institution that’s existence is threatened. It is at the centre of the town and the centre of the lives of the town’s citizens.
Two sound effects are heard when the music stops; birds singing and church bells ringing. The birds once again allude to the town’s apparent tranquillity but also could be read to symbolically represent new life and new beginnings; something which the town is about to experience. Things are about to change and become transformed.
The church bells are a familiar sound to even the most pagan of viewers; most people know that they are rung in order to call people to church, or at least to draw attention to it. These bells however are not tuneful, but are somewhat monotonous and off-key; which could well refer to the fact that the weekly routine of going to church is not a joy to these people, these bells are not joyous or inviting, rather they are boring and dreary. The viewer when hearing this will perhaps view see that this place does not achieve the things that a good church should; contrastly it is a place of boredom and weekly duty.
We are now shown a straight on shot of Comte Reynaud (Alfred Molina), this shot suggests that he is someone who is not necessarily of any threat; but the straightness insures that he is definitely in control. As people pass him and enter the church, this notion is confirmed when he signals to a man to remove his hat, almost like a school teacher. This is not a man who lets anything go unnoticed, especially rebellion; something that Vianne (Juliette Binoche) has plenty of.
The costume choice of black, his removed hat and the facial hair on his upper lip (moustache) all suggest that Comte is a man of conservative persuasion. This prepares the viewer to see him in juxtaposition to Vianne who is presented as progressive and daring.
The church is framed from a lower view-point suggesting its domineering nature. This church is not a place that is open to sinners who can find solace in it’s forgiving nature; rather it is a place which gives it’s members no freedom or joy; something which the chocolate shop can happily offer (especially in the month of lent).
A good point on the fact that this is a wide-angle shot is made by Plate;
A significant early shot is taken from the opening of what will become the chocolate shop, and the wide-angle camera is forced to point high to take in the height of the church towering above it.
The fact that this shot is taken from where the chocolate shop is established implies that these two places are in head to head conflict which is definitely seen throughout the film in the fact that both places stand for such different values.
This opening sequence of filmic images all combine to portray the film’s core narrative line; two very different worlds colliding. Those who manage to watch the film all the way to the end see that the two world’s eventually settle their differences and that Vianne undergoes an earth shattering change of her very own. This film does not necessarily serve to highlight a negativity towards the Christian church as a whole; rather it’s message discourages regimented and freedom infringment in religion and in politics. In the same way, the film is not necessarily encouraging chocolate binges or revolutionary retail, rather it would be better to read it as an acknowledgement of the beauty of freedom and enjoyment (namely the enjoyment of Chocolate).