In Honor of Bastille day this past Wednesday July 14th, this week’s featured film for Beauty in the movies is Chocolat. It’s also very appropriate that this article in the New York Times came out yesterday about the beauty of french women and aging gracefully. Coincidentally the article featured two of the actresses in the film, Juliette Binoche and Leslie Caron who was made famous for playing the title role in the film Gigi. We Americans seem to have a particular obsession with the French Je ne sais quoi, with books like French Women Don’t Get Fat, and the multiple other french diet books, it seems we are constantly trying to capture that same easy elegance that radiates off certain french women. Bridgitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Julie Delpy, Eva Green, they all seem to embody a certain standard, it makes me wonder if French women feel as pressured to meet that standard as we feel to meet the skinny, tan, all-American standard. That’s food for another post, this one is about a fabulous movie called Chocolat, haven’t seen it? You should, let’s check out why.
Even the must curmudgeonly, sarcastic, angry, person couldn’t sit down to watch 121 minutes of the enchanting Juliette Binoche changing the lives of residents in a small town with chocolate and not crack a smile or two. It’s one of those films that explores the extent of human emotion while spinning magic and keeping things lighthearted. In the movie I Love You Man, it’s a running joke that the male characters can’t help but love Chocolat. I think that serves as an example of how films like this get written off as being for women because they have a majority of strong female characters, but when given a chance they’re equally enjoyed by men, just ask my fiancé!
Chocolat is the story of Vianne, a woman whose Mayan ancestors followed where the north wind carried them from village to village for generations, dispensing the medicinal and magical properties of cocoa. Vianne was raised this way by her mother, and continues the tradition with her daughter, but she would never imagine that a sleepy little town in France may finally break the nomadic cycle of her people.
Vianne Rocher and her young daughter Anouk arrive in the french town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes on a stormy night during the holy time of lent in 1959. Vianne rents a patisserie from the cranky, elderly Armande (Judi Dench) and sets about turning the small shop into something far better than anything the town has seen before—a chocolaterie. Vianne’s shop is conveniently located across the square from the large cathedral where nearly every resident attends church, except for Vianne and Anouk. The town is presided over by the deeply devout Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), who instantly sees the threat Vianne poses to the tranquility of the small town, and sets out to prevent the chocolaterie from doing business. The Comte is in a prolonged fast in which he deprives himself even bread, the man views smelling a jar of jam as sinful. The Comte is the epitome of self-denial not just with food, but also in that he cannot admit his wife has left him when the entire town knows it to be true. While the Comte may try to suppress the desires of the townspeople, Vianne’s magical sweets are so intoxicating that slowly each of them is drawn into the shop, and once she has guessed their “favorite” as she has a knack for doing, they are sure to return again and again. I’ll save the rest for you to see yourself, but Johnny Depp is in it if that encourages any of you to check it out, and he and Juliette Binoche have lovely chemistry together.
Chocolat is really a story about deprivation, and how allowing yourself even the smallest pleasure can set you free and bring people together. The Comte, though loathsome in his efforts to defeat Vianne, is also a sympathetic character. He is a man of tradition, and as the modern world has begun to creep into his small town he tries harder and harder to stave off the corruption that he imagines it will bring. There is no doubt he believes what he is doing is the will of god, but he cannot see past the unconventional actions of Vianne and realize that she is a compassionate and generous woman despite her eccentricities. Both characters are bound by tradition, and they each find the will to break their bonds in the most unlikely of places.
There are some great performances in this film, both Binoche and Dench were nominated for Oscars, but it is truly an ensemble cast. The supporting characters are all played by fantastic actors who bring a real sense of depth to the film, including the ever gorgeous Leslie Caron as a widow still grieving her husband’s death in WWI, Lena Olin as an abused wife who is taken in by Vianne, and Johnny Depp as the Irish traveler Roux, in whom Vianne finally meets her match.
The sets, the costumes, and the art direction of this film are absolutely exceptional. I want everything that Vianne wears, and I want her to come decorate my house for me (and make me chocolate too). The set for this film could easily be reused for an Anthropologie photo-shoot if it hasn’t already. The rich colors and costumes reflect the sensuality and the delight of chocolate, and one of my favorite lines in the movie is when Anouk asks “Why can’t you wear black shoes like the other mothers?” since all of Vianne’s gorgeous outfits are accompanied by a vibrant pair of red or coral pumps.
This film brings to mind the idea of the magical female. Another Beauty in the Movies featured film The Butcher’s Wife, features a similar effect. A women comes into a new place and with her colorful and lively spirit changes the lives of all those around her. I’m also reminded of The Secret Garden (even though she is a girl rather than a woman) and Cold Comfort Farm (which is one of my favorites and will be featured on here soon!) or even The Sound of Music or Mary Poppins. I think there must be some collective unconsciousness that appeals to all of us in the stories that unfold in this way, the women act as generous mother figures who breeze in and fix what is wrong with the world around them through their love and clarity. What is nice about Chocolat is that the character of Vianne is fully developed, she is effected by the town, and in the end it has a profound effect on her too.
In his sermon to the congregation Pere Henri, the young rock n’ roll loving priest in the film, delivers a beautiful message, he says “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.” This film asks how exclusion can ever be a good thing, and how goodness can be something that’s won by denial and pain. Tolerance seems intuitive, yet humans forget over and over how exclusion breeds hatred, and how denial breeds resentment. Chocolat may be a small story about candy, celebration, and friends, but it’s in the small moments in life that we find the divine, that we see the beauty of humanity. With just a bit of kindness, a touch of generosity, and a piece of chocolate, we can all learn to understand each other better, or we can at least try.
And that’s that. Have a great weekend everyone, and please if you like this blog please pass it along to people who you think might enjoy it, and let me thank you in advance for it!
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