Lasse Hallstrom (2000, Miramax)
Starring Juliette Binoche, Alfred Molina, Carrie-Anne Moss,
Judi Dench, and Johnny Depp
A woman stirs controversy in a small French village when she opens a chocolate shop during Lent.
September 1st, 2001 on Video
Really enjoyable, very funny, it showed acceptance and how fanaticism can get way out of hand!
The entire movie was a very cute and whimsical tale. Even when great violence was being done, it was over quickly, and we returned to the core of the movie, which was to stir up as much trouble as it possibly could.
The two main characters are Vianne and le Compte de Reynaud. Vianne comes to this small French town and sets up a shop that sells the most decadent chocolates, from recipes passed down for generations. The Compte is the mayor of this town, and while he has no legal justification for throwing her out, he publicly calls her immoral, a temptress, and all sorts of other titles that deeply religious people would consider to be blasphemous. But Vianne doesn't even blink at them, except when her customers stop coming by for a while. For it is Lent, and the townspeople are supposed to give up all worldly pleasures. The count himself fasts for forty days. And the townspeople are expected to follow.
Except that they are weak. They don't want to follow. Their miserable little lives have been brought a splash of color. And they quickly get addicted to chocolate! There is the old man who walks his dog by, and who is interested in a old woman, but he never gets the nerve to ask her out. Then Vianne gives him chocolates for her, and they are quickly involved. She gives chocolate almonds to a woman who is tired of housework, whose husband is comatose on the couch every night. Suddenly, they are both awake and energized, and can't get enough of worldly pleasures (or each other)!
Then there are the kleptomaniac and the old diabetic. These are the real stories worth watching for. The younger woman steals because she can't help it. She is in an abusive relationship, and after Vianne reaches out to her, offers her friendship, she finally leaves her man. She ends up working for Vianne in the chocolate shop (I am unclear where Vianne got the money to hire a hand, or if the woman was simply working for free). It then becomes a duel between the count and Vianne, as the count tries to reform Serge (the
husband, starting in a hilarious scene where he drags the man to confession), and Vianne makes the woman more independent.
Armande, the old diabetic, is unhappy because she can't see her grandson, and her daughter hasn't spoken to her for years. She comes into the chocolate shop every day, and she talks to Vianne, until Vianne invites the grandson to her shop to do a portrait of the old woman. Then, every week as the mother gets her hair done at the beauty salon, the boy visits with his grandmother, the "bad influence". When it is revealed that the woman is a diabetic, and that her daughter wants to put her in a nursing home, Vianne feels both betrayed and sad. The sadness wins over, as the woman tells her that it is her own decision how to live her last days. She will eat chocolate if she so desires!
The movie comes to a head when some river rats park their boats at the river near the village. Vianne doesn't really want anything to do with them until she notices that they really irritate the count.
Then she buys things from them and even starts up a relationship with one! They hold a party for
Armande on their boats, where they dance the night away. When Armand's daughter sees her son dancing with his grandmother, she repents, and decides that she has shielded her son too much.
Vianne's daughter, Anouk, follows her along from place to place. They never stay in one town for long, before Vianne feels the changing winds, and has to move on. It is a genetic trait; her mother was from the rain forests of South America, and when her father brought her to Europe, she eventually left him to go wandering, bringing the secrets of chocolate all over the world. Vianne had to follow. And now Anouk does, too. Only Anouk isn't happy with this lifestyle, though she bears it well. She has an imaginary friend, Pantouffe the kangaroo, who only disappears after her mother decides to stay, and they are accepted.
The turnaround comes when the count finally acknowledges that these are fine people, and that the leash he has on the townspeople should be loosened. That he would go so far, I am not sure, because Vianne doesn't go to church, and she collects all sorts of pagan artifacts. To be accepted at all into such a Catholic town is dubious.
The count writes all the sermons for the local priest, keeping him firmly under his toe, and essentially counts the townspeople as they enter the church. Even when
God himself seems to interfere, by opening the church doors with a sudden gust, the count rebels against it, shutting the doors quickly and locking them against another outburst. And when he suggests to Serge that something must be done about the river rats, Serge takes it upon himself to light it on fire after the party, not knowing that his wife is asleep on one of the boats. Vianne and Roux are being intimate on another boat (it seemed to me that Roux took advantage of Vianne, but she didn't seem to mind, even afterwards...), and Anouk is also asleep there. The movie takes us on an unfair emotional roller-coaster as we think that Anouk has died, until she shows up alive and well on the riverbank near her mother. Roux leaves, clearly unwanted in this town, but reappears at the end to give us a happy ending.
Armande dies after her party, happily asleep in her chair, as her grandson cleans up for her. She never did make it to that nursing home, and she went out with a bang.
The count ejects Serge from the town when he finds out what the man did, and realizes that a simple innocent suggestion from him led this man down the wrong path. He asks God for guidance, and ends up in a murderous frenzy, breaking into the chocolate shop on the eve of Easter, chopping up the helpless chocolate figures! It is a hilarious scene, and he ends up asleep in the display
window, face full of chocolate (with a pretty bad stomach ache), for the priest to find on his way to church in the morning. That is the moment of truth, where they all realize that we can live together without persecuting one another for being different. The priest, in his first non-scripted homily, tells the
congregation that he thinks they would be best served if they defined themselves by who they love and include, instead of those they dislike and exclude.
And Vianne, after an argument with Anouk about leaving the town for good, drops her mothers ashes, scattering them. She decides to stay, and gives the ashes up to the wind...
Vianne was like a bartender, sitting at the counter, serving hot chocolate, and listening to her client's troubles. Offering up advice. And just plain being an ear to whisper to. The townspeople loved it, but they constantly felt guilty about going there, because it was a forbidden pleasure. But Vianne stirred up the little town, and it was a lot of fun to see how they reacted to her, then finally came around to her side.
There was a lot of subtle humor in this film, especially in the way the guilt was played out.
But the funniest moment had to be when Roux pretended to eat a worm, after
arguing with Pantouffe about whether the kangaroo should try the taste of
Vianne stayed mostly aloof, even in the face of all the adversity that the
count heaped upon her. She only lost her cool once, and at that point, I wondered if the count would win the duel. But even he came around eventually. A very light film, filled with many emotions, lots of whimsical plays on those emotions and facial expressions that showed that the actors were really having a lot of fun doing this. Truly enjoyable, and a film that I wouldn't mind seeing again sometime.