Film & TV

Chocolat: Healing the Past and Making Life Sweeter

A perfect example of Taurus on film can be found in Chocolat, a light-hearted fable that makes your mouth water just watching it. Like all good films, it’s about many things: religious belief v atheism, feminism, inclusion, temptation, and what it means to live a good life. It’s a tale of freedom and longing, forgiveness and compassion, and the need for self-acceptance and healing. The story follows Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk, who travel from place to place, selling chocolates and bringing change to the people they encounter.

The film begins with a voiceover: “Once upon a time…”, taking us into the realm of fairy stories and magic. It’s 1959 and Vianne arrives in the quiet village of Lansquenet in France, blown in on the wind. The village is conservative and old-fashioned, but she opens a chocolaterie during Lent and sets about tempting the villagers out of their repressed lives. This brings her into conflict with the mayor, the Comte de Reynaud, and a battle over the soul of the village begins…

Life in the village revolves around the church, but Vianne comes from a very different world. She’s an outsider, an unmarried mother who doesn’t go to church. Her clothes are colourful and modern, while the villagers dress in muted tones, stuck in the ways of the past. Vianne blows in, as if from the future.

She travels with the wind – representing the life force or spirit – and practices a form of magic with her gourmet chocolates. When the villagers come into the shop, Vianne intuits what they need using her scrying disc to guess their favourites.

“What do you see…?”

This is a great way to introduce the characters and discover their various problems, fears, and repressions. Everybody in the village is inhibited or wounded in some way. Many are trapped in the past, following old traditions and habits that no longer make them feel alive. Vianne dispenses her medicine and slowly the village begins to change.

**Expect spoilers from this point on!**

The first person Vianne meets is Armande Voizin, the grumpy old woman from whom she rents the shop. Armande is fiercely independent and not easily impressed, but when she tastes the hot chocolate she’s lost for words. She has diabetes and resents the interference of her daughter, Caroline, who tries to control what she eats. She wants to live life on her own terms and stuffs herself with Vianne’s chocolates, despite the danger to her health. She wants to live fully before she dies.

Armande is estranged from her daughter, but she’s also worried about her grandson, Luc, and rages about how his mother is always criticising him. Caroline is overprotective and stifling the life out of Luc, who gets nose bleeds but longs to ride a bike and play with the other boys. In the book, Armande says this:

“There’s nothing wrong with him that a good dose of living wouldn’t cure…Let him run awhile without worrying what would happen if he fell over. Let him loose. Let him breathe.”

Vianne arranges things so Armande and Luc can get reacquainted, and prepares a lavish feast for Armande’s birthday. By this point in the story, Vianne has an assistant in the shop: Josephine Muscat.

Josephine makes Nipples of Venus

When we first meet Josephine, she’s nervous and friendless. As one of the villagers says, “She waltzes to her own tune.” Josephine is the village freak, the one who can’t, or won’t, fit in. She steals from the shop, but Vianne doesn’t confront her – she treats her with kindness and accepts her as she is.

Josephine wants more out of life but feels oppressed by the atmosphere of the village. However, the real problem is her husband, Serge, who is violent and controlling. Josephine finds the courage to leave Serge and goes to stay with Vianne, and through their friendship, learns to believe in herself. Vianne teaches her how to make chocolates and by developing her creativity she regains a sense of her own value and dignity.

At the start of the story Josephine was more independent than she realised. She couldn’t conform to the village ways and didn’t want to fit in, but she didn’t have the confidence to stand up for herself. As she comes back to life, she transforms from an oppressed victim of domestic abuse to an empowered, independent woman. In the end, she takes over the running of her husband’s café and renames it Café Armande.

Meanwhile, looming over everything that happens in the village is the figure of the Comte de Reynaud, mayor and general buzzkill. Reynaud sees himself as the moral compass of the village and has a controlling influence over the priest because of his family’s long history in the area. Reynaud invites Vianne to worship with them at the church, but she politely declines.

Reynaud sees Vianne as the enemy and a threat to the traditional ways of the village. The power struggle between these two characters is the main through-line of the story, but the battle is played out via the marriage of Josephine and Serge Muscat.

When Reynaud discovers that Serge has beaten his wife, he sets out to reform him. He drags him to church and forces him to confess and attend Sunday School with the children, and even gives him etiquette lessons to turn him into a gentleman. Reynaud wants to redeem Serge and make him conform to what he sees as perfect, God-fearing behaviour. If he can achieve that, then he’s won and Vianne has lost.

Of course, it doesn’t work and Serge makes a fool of himself and is banished from the village. Reynaud tries to do what he believes is right and good, but fails because religious devotion isn’t about rigidly controlling life. It’s no accident that the story is set during Lent.

“Resist not evil…!”

Lent is about self-denial and resisting temptation. You’re supposed to resist the things that lure you away from God. So Reynaud, being a pious sort, takes the Lenten fast to the extreme and hardly eats anything for weeks. All the way through the film we see him resisting the allure of food, and the struggle appears to be connected with his wife. He tells people that the Countess has gone on holiday, but they know she isn’t coming back.

Reynaud doesn’t want to accept that his wife has left him because he doesn’t want to appear vulnerable. He may be the source of the repression that’s causing so many problems for other people, but he’s suffering under it too. He’s a prisoner of his own fears and background, trapped in the values of a past that no longer serve him.

It all comes to a head on Easter Sunday. Vianne has made a window display that features a chocolate fertility goddess. Reynaud, delirious with hunger, breaks into the shop and destroys the goddess. But the magical alchemy of the chocolate does its work and he gorges himself, defeated by his own weakness…

Reynaud is finally able to let go of his wife and allows the priest to do his job without interference. But what of Vianne? She’s the catalyst that ignites change in the village, but is she as free as she seems?

Vianne and Anouk travel with the wind, just like Vianne did with her mother. Her mother was a Wanderer, fated to move with the north wind, dispensing remedies and never settling down. Vianne carries her mother’s ashes wherever she goes and appears to love her itinerant lifestyle. But Anouk is fed up with all the moving and wants to stay in the village. She’s tired of being an outsider.

Vianne seems free but she’s driven to keep moving on, even when she knows it has a negative effect on her child. In the same way that Reynaud is oppressed by his family’s history, Vianne is oppressed by her mother’s memory and the life she led with her – it’s all she knows. She’s just as trapped by tradition as Reynaud and the people of the village.

So Vianne, the strong, independent, free-spirited atheist, is also tempted and trapped. She’s tempted by the wind that calls to her and tries to draw her away. When the pressure becomes too much, Vianne forces Anouk to put on her red cape and drags her down the stairs. But in the struggle, the urn containing her mother’s ashes falls and breaks: a rupture with the past.

Vianne hears sounds coming from the kitchen and discovers her new friends making chocolates. Josephine has gathered the villagers to encourage Vianne to stay. The outsider has finally been accepted into the community.

“We can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, what we resist and who we exclude. I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.” – Pere Henri

Chocolat highlights the difference between goodness that’s imposed from outside – being good by doing what you’re told – and goodness that comes from within. Real goodness is about aligning with the good inside yourself: the love and compassion that are your true nature.

Reynaud tries to force people conform to an ideal standard imposed by tradition and misguided ideas about piety. It’s really an attempt to control life and to stop things from changing. But you can’t live life if you’re trying to control everything.

So the story is about accepting change, and to do that you need to accept the present as it is. Vianne accepts people as they are and they flourish – their natural good nature comes out and life begins to flow again. Perhaps this is how her chocolates work: the sensual pleasure brings people into the moment and helps them to forget all the stupid rules holding them back.

The healing of old wounds can only happen when you’re in the present moment, not trapped in the past or escaping into the future. Being present allows you to recognise and accept what’s actually happening in front of you (and inside you). And acceptance of reality brings inner peace which blossoms into life-affirming change.

Both Reynaud and Vianne heal when they recognise what’s true. Reynaud can’t face that his wife has gone, and Vianne can’t face that her daughter is unhappy. The battle between them allows each to accept reality: Reynaud accepts that his wife isn’t coming back and opens his life to a new love; Vianne accepts that Anouk wants to belong somewhere and releases her mother’s ashes into the wind.

At the end of the film, the Easter Festival brings the whole community together in the village square between the church and the chocolaterie – both sides finally united over food, fun and happiness. In the book, Vianne explains what she believes is the only important thing in life:

“Happiness. Simple as a glass of chocolate or tortuous as the heart. Bitter. Sweet. Alive.”

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Images: Film Stills

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