Directed By: Lasse Hallstrom
Written By: Joanne Harris; Robert Nelson Jacobs
Juliette Binoche – Vianne Rocher
Victorie Thivisol – Anouk Rocher
Alfred Molina – Comte de Reynaud
Judi Dench – Armande Voizin
Hugh O’Conor – Pere Henri
Lena Olin – Josephine Muscat
Peter Stormare – Serge Muscat
Johnny Depp – Roux “river-rat”
Language: English Genre: Romance-Drama
Chocolat opens with a beguiling fog that slowly reveals a quaint French village atop a hill, surrounded by walls, looking much like fort. The fog seems reminiscent of the steam that surrounds a vessel on the stove, which you brush aside to continue with your creation. What you discover is that food, in every manifestation (even metaphorical), is present in the film. Food and its close associate denial.
Set fifteen years after the Second World War when the world was recovering, yet hadn’t quite found its joie de vivre, the story follows a young chocolatier and her daughter who arrive in this village that is beginning its Lenten period of fast and abstinence. It is a village that believes in tranquillity and Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and Anouk (Victorie Thivisol) destroy it by being different.
The Mayor of the village Comte Reynaud (Alfred Molina) both practises and enforces moral austerity on the people. Vianne’s open flouting of the Lenten rules by opening a chocolaterie, not attending mass and flaunting her unwed mother status, leads him to a covert operation of ostracising her from the community.
He exercises ideological control over the villagers by editing the Lenten sermons of the village priest Pere Henri (Hugh O’Conor). It would be folly to see him as a cardboard villain because the irony is that he believes that he is justified and doing it for the good of the people. He is also quite the gentleman and is actually shocked at the seamier side to people’s lives such as when he finds out that Josephine (Lena Olin) is actually being beaten by her husband Serge (Peter Stormare) and hence left him.
The film thus critiques the practise of being morally right and quick harsh judgement. It also presents how society ensures that people follow the norms laid out by inflicting mental harassment. In this it deviates harshly from true Christian principles of accepting everyone, of not creating hierarchies of morality and of community welfare. It thus makes religion un-enjoyable.
Religion is about joy but people are quick to assume that flagellation of the self will make one superior. One can notice that those who do this – remaining austere by force have no joy and are actually grappling with dark emotions. It seems dark all the more because they are unable to forgive themselves for possessing it.
The confessional then becomes an important motif in the film; some being forced to enter it on the assumption that by just going through the motions of it, it will result in miraculous effects. But most villagers congregate there to confess that they felt pleasure.
Pleasure is given a lot of bad press but there is nothing wrong with feeling pleasure. Eating good food, living life on your terms does not make one a sinful hedonist. (If you want to get a glimpse of hedonism, watch The Libertine – it documents the life of the Second Earl of Rochester). For some reason, people correlate more misery with better chances of going to heaven. This is why Pere Henri’s Easter sermon about the humanity of Jesus Christ as opposed to his divinity makes sense. He lived, ate, drank, had friends, yet people brush that aside and focus only on the forty days of fast and the agony on the cross.
So my take back from the film would be this quote – “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.”
After all, once you understand and respect pleasure, you can be forgiving and open-minded. Pleasure, correctly understood, is liberating.