Saturday, June 21, 2014

Mmmm...Chocolat

The 2000 film Chocolat, directed by Lasse Hallström, features plenty of myths: the story even begins with 'Once upon a time...'. There's the myth of tranquillité held by the townspeople of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, holding them back from true happiness. Then there is the myth of Anouk's imaginary, war-injured kangaroo Pantoufle, helping the little girl to cope with moving from place to place alongside her mother as well as with the other children who bully her for living differently. More importantly, I think, is the myth of Vianne's seemingly magical chocolaterie and her Mayan mother, Chitza.

Vianne, as played by Julitte Binoche.

The narrator tells the story of Anouk's heritage:

"George was honest, prosperous and trusted by his customers. But George was not content. He felt there should be more to life than dispensing liver oil. In the spring of 1927, the Societe Pharmeceutique formed an expedition to Central America to study the medicinal properties of certain natural compounds. George was the expedition's most eager volunteer, but his adventure took a turn he did not expect. One night, he was invited to drink unrefined cacao with a pinch of chilli—the very same drink the ancient Maya used in their sacred ceremonies. The Maya believed cacao held the power to unlock hidden yearnings and reveal destinies. And so it was that George first saw Chitza. Now, George had been raised a good Catholic, but in his romance with Chitza he was willing to slightly bend the rules of Christian courtship. The tribal elders tried to warn George about her: she was one of the wanderers. Her people moved with the North Wind from village to village, dispensing ancient remedies, never settling down. Not a good choice for a bride. George did not heed their warning and, for a while, it seemed that he and Chitza might lead a happy life together in France. Alas, the clever North Wind had other plans. One morning, George awoke to discover that Chitza and the little girl Vianne had gone away. Mother and daughter were fated to wander from village to village, dispensing ancient cacao remedies, travelling with the wind...just as Chitza's people had done for generations." —Screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs

Interior of La Chocolaterie Maya, decorated with Central American artifacts.

When the North Wind first takes long-time travellers Vianne and Anouk Rocher to the little French town "where everyone knows their place" in the winter of 1959, they are approached with caution and sometimes—in the case of the conservative Comte Reynaud—open hostility. Opening a sweets shop just in time for Lent does not go unnoticed by the Catholic villagers, but Vianne begins to win them over one by one. She and her chocolate help mend relationships, inspire self-confidence, and teach strength to those in need, giving more credence to acceptance, kindness, and happiness than the Comte's harsh sermons ever allowed for. The thought of something exotic is alluring even as Vianne's atheism and Anouk's illegitimacy are brought out into the open by the Comte and the other overly-penitent members of the community. They condemn Vianne as a devilish temptress just as they ostracize a group of river gypsies who dock near the town. Vianne befriends these outcasts, including their Irish captain, Roux (Johnny Depp).

Useless trivia: this is the first & so-far only film in which Depp plays the guitar on-screen.

Thankfully, the chocolate and its 'healing powers' are too strong for some of the townsfolk, allowing the chocolaterie to stay in business. Still, Vianne becomes thoroughly shaken after the death of a friend and an unfortunate incident caused by the town drunk that forces the gypsies to leave and allows the village's traditions to strengthen. She once again begins to feel the pull of the North Wind. Before she can leave, though, her faith in the town is reestablished as her friends flock to her side. Eventually, the Comte himself refuses further self-denial and comes to terms with his own shortcomings. There's a Pagan Easter festival, Vianne decides to stay for good, Roux returns in the summer, and Anouk can let go of Pantoufle. Fin.

This happy ending would not have been possible if it were not for Vianne keeping up the tradition of chocolate-making. The possibility of something new in a town where change is frowned upon turns out to be the catalyst for contentment; not the fabled ideal of tranquillité, but real peace of mind that can only be obtained through self-actualization. Vianne says that she possesses a natural gift for guessing her customer's favourite confections, but what she really sees is the core of a person. This she uses to help them decide what they need in life. The myth of the Mayan wanderers has little to do with magic and all to do with human compassion.

"What do you see?"

As for the film itself, I find it absolutely charming. A lovely movie with winsome characters, touches of magical realism, plenty of romance and, of course, chocolate.

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