The way we view the things around us is heavily influenced by the ways in which these things are presented to us. We see things in our homes, in stores, in advertisements, on television, and in movies. Even if we do not actively notice what we’re seeing, our perceptions can be changed, and the way we view the thing itself can be established without much awareness at all.
Chocolate is featured in many films, whether as a key ingredient – as in Chocolat or the various adaptations of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – or just in passing – as in Ever After or Harry Potter – or anywhere in between.
The film Ever After is a Cinderella story, set in sixteenth century France. In it, the “evil” stepsister, Marguerite, attempts to seduce the prince, Henry. While wandering the market together, along with his entourage and her ambitious mother, a servant brings the prince a tray. He offers it to Marguerite, promising, “Never have you tasted anything so delicious.” In true seductress fashion, Marguerite allows him to feed her a morsel, then declares in a breathy tone, “Why, it’s positively sinful. What’s it called?” “Chocolate,” he tells her. “The Spanish monks keep sending us bricks of it,” (Ever After).
While certainly not a particularly accurate portrayal of chocolate consumption in the sixteenth century, it does capture some of the spirit. At the time, chocolate would have been drunk, not eaten, and would certainly have been mixed with something to sweeten the flavor. However, it was the province not even of the very wealthy, but of royalty, a point which comes across well in the scene. “It had been an elite drink among the… Mesoamericans, and it stayed that way among the… royalty and nobility of Europe,” (Coe, p. 125). There is no need for elaborate tales of the New World, or for a speech on this being the food of the gods. The mere fact that this young woman, who is herself the daughter of a baroness, has never even heard of chocolate indicates that it is something very special and very exclusive.
It’s only a moment in the film, not even the main focus of the scene in which it appears, but it leaves the viewer with a certain impression of chocolate that will stick. This “sinful” food is the delight of kings, and a tool for seduction. Both of these depictions of chocolate are very common, particularly that of chocolate as something erotic.
Chocolate is much more prevalent in the film Down with Love than it is in Ever After. Set in New York City in 1962, the leading lady, Barbara Novak, writes a best-selling book, the central thesis of which is that “women will never be happy until they become independent as individuals by achieving equal participation in the workforce,” (Down with Love). For women, “love is a distraction,” Barbara says (Down with Love). They are hampered by love in a way men are not, and her book details a step-by-step process for women to overcome this obstacle. The first step is to abstain from men altogether, replacing them with chocolate. As she explains to the creative team at her publishing house, “the female experiences a biological reaction to chocolate that triggers the same pleasurable responses in the brain as are triggered during the sex act. By substituting chocolate for sex, the female will soon learn the difference between sex and love. Love for a man will no longer occupy her mind,” (Down with Love).
The presence of chocolate is steady throughout the film. When Barbara can’t find a date for a big night out, she settles herself at home with chocolate. When her evening with leading man Catcher Block – disguised as the old-fashioned, slightly nerdy Major Zip Martin – ends with dinner, she makes a point of taking the remainder of their chocolate dessert home with her to ease her frustration. Thanks to Barbara’s book, also titled “Down with Love”, chocolate sales have sky-rocketed, so when she starts her own magazine company – run by women and for women – they start selling Down with Love chocolate bars, packaged to match the book cover.
Change in the real world doesn’t happen so quickly, of course, but by the end of the film, Barbara and the other women have achieved their independence and workplace equality. Gladys, her secretary, even proclaims, “The only man who could have his way with me now is Milton Hershey!” (Down with Love).
Set in 1959, the film Chocolat is full of its namesake. Spirited, independent, unwed mother Vianne Rocher moves with her daughter to a small French town to open a chocolaterie. Her unconventional ways shake up the tradition-bound town, which has just begun its observation of Lent. Based on the Joanne Harris novel of the same name, Chocolat presents a more sophisticated edge to the seductive side of chocolate than the slightly zany comedy of Down with Love. Focused on a small chocolate shop with a single artisan, rather than the mass-produced chocolate seen in Down with Love, Chocolat is “able to revel… in the sensuousness and luxuriousness attributed to ‘fine’ chocolate,” (Robertson, p. 2). Vianne’s chocolate is a gateway, though into what depends on her customer. The mayor of the town, the Comte de Reynaud, is particularly displeased with the disruption of his tranquil home, and persuades the young priest that chocolate, chocolaterie, and chocolatier form a gateway to sin that the townspeople must be protected from. For Josephine, the unhappy wife of an abusive husband, they are a gateway to freedom and a happiness she had thought never to find.
The chocolate in the film, made from “secret Maya recipes”, is given a mysterious quality to go with the sensuality and luxury. The rich colors of the chocolate shop contrast with the grays and neutral tones of the rest of the town, and the chocolates look good enough to eat, in spite of being on a screen. But the chocolate is not used as an alternative to sex, as it is in Down with Love. It promotes sex, certainly, in cases where it would be welcome, as in the case of Madame and Monsieur Marceau, who invest in “unrefined cacao nibs from Guatemala, to awaken the passions,” (Chocolat). But it also promotes a different kind of relationship, and an escape from the rigidity of the town’s past. Vianne and her chocolate bring her landlady, Armande, together with her grandson, Luc, allowing them to have a relationship previously forbidden by Caroline, Armande’s daughter and Luc’s mother. Vianne helps Josephine free herself from her husband, giving the other woman a supportive friend that had clearly been lacking in her life. And in the end, Vianne helps the whole town – Comte and all – to become a brighter, happier place.
The two film adaptations of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory leave out the sex and sensuality, but embrace the notion of chocolate as a symbol not only of change for a better and brighter future, as in Chocolat and Down with Love, but as a sign of wealth and success. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, released in 1971, is rather more whimsical than the darker, psychedelic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of 2005, but the main story is the same. Charlie Bucket, very poor, but a very good sort of person, is one of five children to find a golden ticket and gain access to the fantastical chocolate factory run by the mysterious Willy Wonka. “The four children besides little Charlie Bucket… are marvelously awful embodiments of ordinary vices,” (Scott). One by one, the other children – all rich, spoiled, bratty – break the rules and are taken away by various means, until only Charlie is left. His grand prize is the factory itself, giving him access to the wonders of all the chocolate and candy Willy Wonka has discovered and created, as well as providing him the means to support his destitute family.
For Charlie, chocolate is a treat, a special gift only on rare occasions. He respects the value of even a single bar, and even when it is all he has, he tries to share it with his family. He appreciates the marvels of the chocolate factory for what they are, rather than what they can do for him. The other children see only things to grasp at, whereas Charlie sees things that can be enjoyed for what they are, as they are. “No other factory in the world mixes its chocolate by waterfall!” Willy Wonka proclaims, “But it’s the only way to do it properly,” (Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Gluttonous Augustus Gloop, to his downfall, sees the chocolate waterfall and river only as a source of food, but Charlie wonders at it for its design and beauty. It is this that sets him apart, and helps him overcome the obstacles in his way, allowing him to change his life, and the lives of those he loves.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, based on the book by J.K. Rowling, presents a different side of chocolate. As common as it is to equate chocolate with richness or sensuousness, chocolate also is frequently used for comfort. In this third installment of the Harry Potter series, magical beings called dementors appear to hunt for Sirius Black, who has escaped from the prison Azkaban. The dementors are disturbing creatures, hooded and cloaked – they feed off of human happiness, sucking it out of their victims and forcing them to relive their worst memories. Early on, Harry Potter and his friends encounter a dementor, and Harry – whose parents were murdered in front of him when he was a baby – passes out. Their newest professor, Remus Lupin, casts a spell to send the dementor away, and gives the children chocolate to eat, telling them “it will help.” Over the course of the film, Professor Lupin teaches Harry to fight the dementors himself, and offers him chocolate to counteract their effects when they practice.
It is never clear if the chocolate itself is imbued with magical properties, or if it is regular chocolate that anyone could purchase in a regular store, but what is clear is that the chocolate helps. “For many people, tasting just a small piece of chocolate can trigger a flood of memories, whether it’s their first Hershey’s bar or that special cake baked for a birthday or a graduation, (Presilla, p. 1). That trigger of good memories in the real world translates into the magical world, and helps to bring back what the dementors have taken away. It provides a sense of warmth, happiness, and comfort to battle the chilling misery created by the dementors, and is easily recognizable and relatable for everyone, regardless of familiarity with the magical world of the Harry Potter franchise.
The portrayal of chocolate in films – whether a brief encounter or a major thematic tool – both uses and encourages common ideas of what chocolate is and what it means. Whether chocolate evokes a sense of privilege or sensuality, independence or comfort, each of these concepts appears on screen and from there into our general notion of what chocolate is. As different as they are, these impressions work together to create our perception of chocolate, even as our perceptions are used to create the images we see present in film.
Ever After. Andy Tennant. 20th Century Fox, 1998.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Tim Burton. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005.
Chocolat. Lasse Hallström. Miramax, 2000.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate, Third Edition. New York: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2013.
Down with Love. Peyton Reed. 20th Century Fox, 2003
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Alfonso Cuarón. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2004.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised. A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, women and empire: a social and cultural history. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.
Scott, A.O. Looking for the Candy, Finding a Back Story. The New York Times, 2005.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Mel Stuart. Paramount Pictures, 1971.