Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The aftertaste of Chocolat

Maybe it was an overdose of chocolate eggs following the end of Lent. Maybe it was that commentator I heard on Easter morning on National Public Radio, while I was still half-asleep, who was some sort of university scholar on sin and who seemed to be saying that Juliette Binoche had replaced Jesus. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the nagging feeling that there was some kind of coded message in Lasse Hallström’s Oscar-nominated hit about post-war life in a small French village. In any event, my mind kept going back to Chocolat.

On the surface, the film appears to be a classic “liberal” manifesto. It is easy to read Alfred Molina’s aristocratic mayor as Ken Starr, Henry Hyde or any other number of conservative figures, who get all bent out of shape at the idea that someone somewhere might actually be having a good time. I keep expecting someone to suggest that Binoche’s character is actually Bill Clinton, a near-martyr to the cause of enjoying oneself without guilt. But if anyone has suggested such a thing, it hasn’t come to my attention—not that I’ve done a lot of searching for commentary on the film, which came out months ago. While the Clinton identification might fit in with the White House spin at the height of the impeachment imbroglio, the comparison doesn’t hold up at all. Clinton may have declared himself the “first black president,” but I have yet to hear him or anyone else make the claim that he was the first woman president. And it is impossible to imagine Vianne the chocolatière as anything but a woman, and we can’t really compare her to someone who held the most powerful political position in the entire world.

In fact, we could well put the “feminist” label on Vianne, since she defies the double standard on male/female public morality and encourages other women to free themselves from men’s shackles. Moreover, despite being directed by a man (albeit a Swede, arguably the least macho of our gender), the film features mainly strong women characters, while the male characters are almost exclusively brutes or boors (Molina, Peter Stormare) or, at best, spineless milquetoasts (John Wood, Hugh O’Conor). The sole exception is Johnny Depp’s sexy hunk, who is more fantasy than human. Yes, it would be easy to put the “feminist” label on this flick—except then we would have to come up with the label “masculinist” for the vast majority of Hollywood films, in which the only interesting characters are men and women are around mainly for window dressing.

In reality, Vianne is one of a long line of cinematic loners (okay, she has a daughter, but she’s still a loner), both female and male, who blow into town and shake things up. Sometimes these loners are tight-lipped gunslingers on a horse. Sometimes they are leather-clad rebels on a motorcycle. And sometimes they are uppity women, who shock people by having a child without ever having been married and who entertain men in their residences. And, by the time these loners leave town again (or, occasionally, settle down), they have invariably put a major dent into a lot of people’s small-mindedness. In a way, Vianne is the cowboy Shane, and it’s her own daughter who calls out to her, “Come back, Shane!” (or, in this case, “stay here”).

These loners usually have a message about standing up for principles and for not giving in to villains, and so does Vianne. But where Shane is trying to get homesteaders to stand up for their own property rights, Vianne encourages things like breaking Lent (in a traditional Catholic town) and having young boys disobey and lie to their mothers. (She also encourages less controversial things like sex within marriage, romance among older people, and having battered women leave their abusive husbands.)

What is striking is how much fun Vianne and her converts have, with their chocolate binges and their illicit parties, and how little fun the mayor and those under his thumb have. But we have to wonder if the rebels would be enjoying themselves nearly so much if the dour sourpuss reactionaries weren’t watching and fuming. In that way, this movie really does provide an encapsulated take on the American culture wars that bubbled to the surface during the Clinton presidency. In a strange, twisted way, each side needs the other. The liberals need the conservatives to scowl at them so that they can luxuriate in their own sense of free-spiritedness. And the conservatives need the liberals so that they have someone to feel superior to. It is the vivacious Vianne who awakens and focuses this underlying societal tension, so in that way I suppose she is much more like Bill Clinton than I thought.

-S.L., 19 April 2001

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