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Chocolat brings us the story of a single mom who stands up for her ideals against conservative notions of society, and still wins hearts.
I watched the movie Chocolat almost a decade ago during my college days. It is a delightful story, set in 1959 with the backdrop of a beautiful French village filled with unique but striking characters.
Vianne (played by Juliette Binoche) is an expert chocolatier and a single mother who moves into a traditional village during the holy season of Lent. To heat up the plot, she does not follow any religion, and stands out in the tightly close knit village where religion is a way of life.
The rest of the movie focusses on how Vianne continues to hold on to her ideals, creates beautiful connections (and concoctions), and manages to transform everyone around her! By the end of the movie, it feels like she has given a cultural facelift to the old-fashioned society.
I watched Chocolat again recently, and it still felt remarkably charming, like the first time I did. But this time I also became aware of many other social issues the movie touches upon, other than the social stigma of an atheist single mother in that period of the 20th century. All of them are pertinent from a woman’s point of view, and how it could define the way a close-knit community could evolve.
She is called a radical by the adults. She is called an atheist by the kids who don’t even understand what it means! Her single mother status is gossip-worthy for elders, while it is troll-worthy for her daughter’s classmates.
Vianne’s social status makes her a curious specimen. But she is not the only outcast in the village – for everyone who doesn’t ‘behave’ will become one. Especially women, who are expected to live within the boundaries drawn by the society- marriage, motherhood, domestic duties and placing the spouse on a pedestal. While these beliefs have not evolved since time immemorial, the characters who try to break this circle bring a strange allure on screen.
An elderly woman has chosen her own lifestyle but is shunned by her own daughter for her decision. A wife who is a victim for domestic abuse finally decides to walk out. A woman who lost her husband the to war decades ago, but is confined with orthodox ideals finds romance in her sunset years. Each character’s arc throws light upon a relevant social issue that woman face and often need a nudge to step out. Against all odds, Vianne’s transcendal warmth and open-mindedness makes her the lighthouse of hope for other women who wish to take charge of their lives.
Vianna has embraced the lifestyle of moving around often and does it with remarkable ease. Though her daughter Anouk struggles a bit, she adapts wonderfully for a child. For Anouk, the father never existed and not knowing him does not bother her. But her mother’s refusal to comply to the society’s expectations is irksome.
“Why can’t we go to church?”
“Why can’t you wear black shoes like the other mothers?”
A classic case of a mother- daughter duo being at odds. Anouk’s piercing questions are a reflection of how the community perceives her mother. And she is unable to make peace with that perception. The real beauty of the scene is the moment when Vianne calmly explains it is not easy to be different. She even says Anouk can go to church if she wants. Though she gently points out how that won’t make things easier!
There is nothing more delightful to watch than a bunch of women supporting each other. The collective moral responsibility to help the other woman just swoops in and the women in Chocolat take charge to defend each other.
Vianne helps Josephine when she walks out on her abusive husband. She doesn’t just give her a home to stay in, but teaches her the trade to help her find a purpose in her life. And when Vianne needs a shoulder for support, Armande, her elderly landlady steps in. The whole community shuns her, but Armande boldly lets her throw a party to signal her support for Vianne.
Judi Dench who plays Armande does it to perfection and delivers a strong line, “When I need help, I’ll ask for it.” I love the firmness in her tone when she says it. I made a note to myself, asking for help is not a sign of weakness. But reaching out might just put you in touch with the helping hand you needed!!
A major part of Chocolat focuses on Vianne’s story of transforming primitive mindsets of the community. But there is another subtle dimension that runs throughout. It is how denial and sacrifice are considered paramount in establishing one’s own virtue. In this case, the parallel analogy is how abstinence during Lent signals religious virtuousness.
Well, the religious angle has no gender bias. But more often, it is women who are conflicted by the idea of denials and sacrifices. While denials are in abundance, sacrifices are how society manages to manipulate women and their perspective of virtue. The expectation from a daughter, wife, mother or grandmother to pause her own progress and prioritise family is the norm. There is an inner conquest here which needs to be won before taking on the world.
I can’t imagine the movie is already 20 years old. But it continues to appeal, sadly because every social issue touched upon in still relevant. The ultra-conservative terms of society continue to exist and women continue to challenge them in every possible way! Vianna plays a pivotal role in challenging the societal norms with finesse. It was not easy, but she takes it in her stride, and keeps chartering her course firmly.
The sermon in the end, sums up everything we learn from the movie. “We can’t measure our goodness by what we don’t do, what we deny ourselves, what we resist and who we exclude.” A deep message for every fierce woman out there!
Chocolat is now streaming on Netflix!!
Image courtesy – Youtube
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