Director Lasse Hallström, 2000.
"Once upon a time, there was a quiet little village in the French countryside, whose people believed in Tranquilité - Tranquility. If you lived in this village, you understood what was expected of you. You knew your place in the scheme of things." Thus begins Chocolat. Set in 1959, tradition, expectations, appearances, all are an integral part of life in this charming, sleepy town. All will be challenged and changed by the end of the movie.
Against a backdrop of the beautiful landscape, two people in red capes scurry, backs bent against the wind that seems to push them forward to their destination. When they arrive, they set up shop, literally, in an empty patisserie. Single mother Vianne (Juliette Binoche) with her young daughter open not a pastry shop, but a chocolaterie, a store where she makes magical confections from Mayan recipes.
Her arrival, however, is in the middle of Lent, where abstinence is rewarded and indulgence is frowned upon. Mayor Comte Reynaud (Alfred Molina) draws the battle lines early. He will not countenance his villagers frequenting her store. Yet, as those in real relational need drop by, Vianne works a magic, mostly by listening and befriending. Her warmth is natural and she genuinely seems to care -- about people not appearances.
Just when things seem to have hit rock bottom, a group of river rats, floating gypsy-like travelers, arrive. Of course the townsfolk want nothing to do with them, but Vianne offers acceptance and tolerance. She is ready to welcome them. Perhaps being an outsider, she is drawn to them. Perhaps it is Roux, the handsome Johnny Depp, who is attracted to her, and she to him.
As in other movies (An Unfinished Life, The Cider House Rules), Hallström explores facets of humanity with a character-driven story. Here he creates a warm-hearted tale that examines love, tolerance and acceptance. Against a backdrop of the simple pleasure of chocolate, indeed using chocolate as a metaphor, he contrasts religion and law with freedom and grace.
As Molina and the church are a metaphor for religion and rigid morality, so Vianne and chocolate are a metaphor for relationships and freedom. The church here is all about appearance, externals. Sensual indulgence, eating chocolate, is forbidden; sensual repression is the norm. As one character says, "Don't worry so much about not supposed to." Too much time is wasted in rule-keeping.
When Vianne helps Josephine escape an abusive marriage, and points out the wounds to the mayor, he responds, "Your husband will be made to repent for this." That is what the town and the church is all about. Repentance for them is forced, and is more for the church than for the individual. Repentance, true repentance can never be forced. It is inward, a turning away from sin. Only by a contrite heart and willing spirit can a person repent. A person can never be made to repent.
The rigid morality of the mayor is offended by the presence of a single, never-married mother. The contrast is flexible immorality, and this is on display in the immediate attraction and sexual indulgence of Vianna with Roux. This is wrong biblically, yet the film rises above this to present a deeper message of acceptance.
Vianne has a knack for going below the surface, for drawing people out to find their pain and deal with it. As she gets to know her landlady, Voizin (Judi Dench), she enables Voizin to see her grandson again. Where the rigid sensibilities of the townsfolk have driven relatives apart, Vianne's love heals their wounds and brings them back together.
The beauty of Chocolat is due in large part to the accomplished cast. Binoche, an Oscar-winner for The English Patient, is cast to perfection here, and offers a role that recalls her brilliance in Kieslowski's Blue (rather than her by-the-numbers role in the 2007 Dan in Real Life). Her warmth and charm exude and she has wonderful chemistry with Depp, here using an Irish accent. Molina is believable as a buttoned-down, stodgy moralist, who is the puppet-master behind the young Catholic priest. Dench is gruff and real as an old woman estranged from her daughter, played by Carrie-Ann Moss (Trinity in The Matrix).
In a telling scene near the end, Père Henri, the young parish priest, finally frees himself from the repressive restriction of the mayor to preach his own sermon, not one handed to him. Rarely do we find a movie using a pastor's sermon to deliver its own message. Yet this is what Hallström does. And he does so effectively:
Do I want to speak of the miracle of our Lord's divine transformation? Not really, no. I don't want to talk about his divinity. I'd rather talk about his humanity. I mean, you know, how he lived his life, here on Earth. His kindness, his tolerance... Listen, here's what I think. I think that we
can't go around... measuring our goodness by what we don't do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think... we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create... and who we include.
So Chocolat is really a movie about incusivism vs exclusivism. And a beautiful and moving film it is. Though there are some questionable moments, and it veers towards too clear a black/white delineation (evil conservatism vs good liberalism), it is a reminder that life is better when shared. It is better when we enjoy it, when we include others, when we tear up our rules and our lists of "shoulds" and throw away our masks. It is time to embrace others who are different from us. It is time to do the things we can do. It is time to love, laugh, and liberate . . . ourselves and others!
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs