Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Sweetness of Life in a Flat World: Chocolat! an environment where traditions are held high in esteem without questioning and where departures from well-established rules are looked at with disdain, life can be quite dull. In 1959 the average small French village certainly was such a sullen place, even more so during the cheerless Lent season preparing for the Roman-Catholic Easter celebrations. To open a chocolate shop just then and there must have been considered as an attack against propriety, but it’s the peg on which Joanne Harris chose to hang the story of Chocolat, her novel first published in 1999.

Already in the year 2000 the Swedish director Lasse Hallström (also known for My Life as a Dog and The Cider House Rules) made Joanne Harris’s multilayered novel about the conflict between the zest for living and (often stubborn) self-denial, between individuality and conformity, between safe stagnation and the uncertainty of change into a highly successful film. Chocolat was nominated for no less than five Oscars, including that for the Best Picture, and even more than a dozen years later people continue to watch it with great pleasure. Certainly, the first-rate cast, including Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, has a considerable part in its popularity.

The story of Chocolat begins on a day in the Lent of 1959, thus late in astronomical winter when nature still uses to be colourless and grey. A northern wind of change blows Vianne Rocher (played by Juliette Binoche) and her six-year-old daughter Anouk (impersonated by Victoire Thivisol) into the quiet (fictional) village Lansquenet-sous-Tannes somewhere at the back of beyond in the French countryside. The single mother, who shocks the community right away because she doesn’t make any secret of never having been married nor shows the slightest sign of shame for her immoral status, rents the old bakery from Armande Voizin (played by Judi Dench) to open La Chocolaterie Maya, a chocolate shop where she intends to sell her own chocolate creations based on old recipes handed down to her by her Mayan grandmother.

Of course, Vianne’s enterprise isn’t welcomed by the austere and devoutly Catholic mayor of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, the Comte de Reynaud (played by Alfred Molina), who tries to live up to the ideals of his noble ancestors. He feels that it’s his inherited duty to be a model of virtue protecting the villagers from all sorts of bad influence and keeping them on the path of probity for their own good. Since as a mayor he can’t do anything to prevent the dangerously libertine Vianne from opening her shop and tempting people to break the fasting, he uses his authority as a respected member of the community to work against her and involves Père Henri (played by Hugh O'Conor), the new priest who isn’t yet settled and self-assured enough to stand up against the mayor and his ideas. And really, most people in the village avoid Vianne’s chocolaterie and forbid their children to go there.

However, the general boycott doesn’t last. By and by easy-going Vianne draws the villagers on her side with her chocolates which seem to have magical power since they can revive the flame of love and give courage. One of the first to befriend Vianne is her landlady Armande Voizin who is a rebellious mind herself and reproved for her unreasonable behaviour, i.e. for refusing to move into an old people’s home, by her own daughter Caroline Clairmont (played by Carrie-Anne Moss) who is a devout Catholic working for the mayor. Armande isn’t even allowed to see her grandson Luc because Caroline fears that she could have a bad influence on him, but Vianne finds a way to secretly bring them together in her shop. Vianne also helps Joséphine (played by Lena Olin) who is regularly beaten up by her alcoholic husband Serge (played by Peter Stormare) owning the village pub. Before long Josephine leaves Serge, moves in with Vianne and learns not just the chocolate trade, but also gains self-confidence. In this case Vianne even receives support from Comte de Reynaud although he doesn’t approve of the wedding vow being broken and does his best to transform Serge into a good and loving husband. Alas, after another night of drinking heavily Serge breaks into the chocolaterie to fetch his wife by force and almost strangles Vianne.

When a band of gypsies lands their house-boats on the river bank just outside the village, Vianne gives the Comte de Reynaud even more reason to be against her because unlike most of the villagers she welcomes them and treats them without prejudice. Their leader is Roux (played by Johnny Depp), a handsome, charming and good-mannered gypsy, who loves the freedom of his vagabond life. Of course, the two outsiders are soon attracted to each other and a tender romance develops between them. Until after the party that Vianne and Roux give for Armande’s birthday everything is fine and everybody is happy. Then their enemies strike and there is a fire which almost costs the lives of Anouk and Joséphine, while Armande dies in her living room from complications caused by her diabetes. But that’s not the end because life on the whole always goes on. At last Easter comes and with it the joys of spring as well as friendship… and sweetness finally replaces the flatness of life.

In his review in the New York Times Elvis Mitchell called Chocolat “an art house movie for people who don't like art house movies”, but who cares about the label? Chocolat certainly is a sweet story in all thinkable senses, and yet, it can also be seen as a pleading for more tolerance and open-mindedness. For the latter alone it already deserves a recommendation! For the rest, I can say that I passed enjoyable 121 minutes watching the film.

For those who prefer to read Chocolat by Joanne Harris:

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