Chocolat (Lasse Hallström, 2000)

 Bonbons bring catharsis to townswomen

No matter how well-equipped your home cinema, how big your television or how loud your speakers; no place offers a better experience for watching movies than the cinema. It’s not just the size of the screen that matters, it’s the ambience. It’s the dark auditorium, full of (hopefully) quiet people sharing a viewing. It’s the décor of broad staircases, red velvet curtains, rows of pop-down seats, the low-key floor lighting, the creamy scent of popcorn. Your choice of location can mean everything to a film.

In Goch is a theatre rich in history, and it is fair. It was built in 1911 by an enraptured German who came into contact with American cinemas at the turn of the century. He named his film house ‘Gocher Lichtspiele’, shortened to Goli. During World War 2 the cinema was destroyed, Goch being quite near the Dutch border, but it was rebuilt in the fifties. Because of this, the Goli has a distinct visual flair. It’s a small, single screen theatre with a curved lobby. Upon entering the auditorium you are greeted by slightly uncomfortable seats, but a spectacle of decorations as well – golden and scarlet curtains foremost. The Goli doesn’t play new films, but opts for classics and thematically interesting movies instead.

All this I tell you to set the scene for my viewing of Chocolat, which plays in rustic France in the 1950s. Two tired travelers venture into a storm-swept village, the center of which is its church in every way. They are a lone mother and daughter, Vianne and Anouk Rocher, in search of a place to start a chocolate store. They’ve been at this life for a while, but every time they were chased away by their neighbors. It doesn’t take long to see why: with their devilishly delectable confections they charm and vivify everyone around them. Romantic desires in old marriages are rekindled, beaten wives are inspired to become independent.

The xenophobic mayor, who uses the church to bend the village’s morality to his will, is gravely upset by these events. He wants peace and quiet in his town, not color and excitement. Siding with the priest and a husband scorned, he attempts to drive Vianne out. She finds partners in oppression when a band of river-faring gypsies moor. Equally outcasts, they become thick as thieves. Vianne feels especially connected with bon vivant Roux. The question is whether the village will commit to its fear of that which is different, or if Vianne will manage to break through tradition & discrimination.

Chocolat is at once a light-hearted tale of a woman who brings life to a town stuck in medieval times, and an earnest critique on women’s place in society. From a modern perspective, Vianne does nothing wrong and we see her as a strong character weathering tough crises. Dishearteningly, the church keeps condemning her as an amoral devil, seducing the populace. The threads of the film leave nothing unspoken, however: every single woman in this film proves strong and resilient. Even the ones buying into their suppressed role in life. Behind the curtains they instinctively know things should be different, and often act upon it. In this sense, the film is optimistic and brings a positive view on emancipation.

The way this film is made is delightful in a lot of ways. The images are strong (the village on a hill, cocoa beans grinded into powder, the beautiful store) and the cast is dotted with fine actors. Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Alfred Molina… among these heavyweights, lead Juliette Binoche holds her own as a character who takes a long time to buckle under pressure and is mother not to just one little girl, but an entire community of undeveloped women.

A whiff of magical realism almost prefigures Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulin from one year later, though Chocolat is somewhat less gaily anarchic. Nevertheless, it is a touching story. Seeing it in the atmospheric Goli made it all the sweeter and more memorable. As good theatres should.

Roderick Leeuwenhart




4 comments:

  1. Johnny Depp!!!

    Eefje

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    1. It was amusing to see how small Depp's part actually is. He's billed heavily as one of the stars on all the posters, but he's really not that important to the plot. Alfred Molina should have been on there, but of course he's not nearly as attractive as Depp ;)

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  2. Somehow I often see a more negative response to this film, and I am glad to see the opposite here. The movie contains a lot of sugar, but I feel on the whole it really works together fantastically. Sometimes it is good to see a movie that is just sweet and does not end with a sting. :)

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    1. As far as I can see, the main critique in these reviews is that the characters are flat and this is a preachy fable. I understand those sentiments, though I simply had a wonderful time with Chocolat and did empathize with the people in the village.

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