Monday, October 05, 2015

Not as indulging as it seems


Lasse Halstrom’s five Oscar nominated Chocolat is a conservation vs freedom movie which works towards establishing a new social order in the society. The object from which the movie derives its title is used as a metaphor for welcoming passion and delight.

Based on Joanne Harris’ book of the same name Chocolat centres on a tranquil fictional French village named Lansquenet in 1959. The heroine of the tale is Vianne Rocher who opens a Chocolaterie during Lent and adds a splash of colour and difference to the drab lifestyle of its occupants. The story opens with tantalizing scenes of how traditional chocolate is made are finally put on display at the window. After such enticing displays the camera focuses on the drab environs of the village where life seems mechanical. The occupants are made to curb their desires in the name of religion and these rules are enforced on them by the Comte de Reynaud who is the villain of the story.

Just when the situation seems hopeless Vianne enters the scene with her charming young daughter, Anouk. The two have been moving from city to city, weaving their magic and spreading cheer into the life of other human beings.

Vianne’s act of opening a chocolate shop in the pious village during holy Lent itself is a shocking novelty. Later the second shock comes because Vianne reveals that she is not one who would attend the traditional Mass dutifully like the other villagers. This element adds further distaste to the Comte’s opinion of her but the generous lady slowly begins breaking down some of the prejudices of the villagers through her goodwill.

Apart from an amusing tale, Chocolat also reveals how its namesake came to be. Vianne tells the folklore of how her ancestors, the Mayan Indians, make ancient formulas for remedies. Though Vianne’s mother was a Mayan woman who had been brought to France by her husband, she could not bear the conventional life and was lured away by the mysterious call of the north wind to travel from place to place curing other living beings with her chocolate formula.

Though the characters are amusingly etched, the storyline is presented a slow pacing fashion which does not generate excitement. Humour is hardly present except in instances such as when a local couple is able to rekindle their marriage when the man eats some of the magical chocolates left near the bin by his affection-starved wife.

The story also reminds us of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s 1997 novel ‘The Mistress of Spices’ which was made into a movie by Paul Mayeda Berges in 2005. However unlike Divakaruni’s Tilo who is on the verge of losing her own magical powers because of her desire for love, Harris’ Vianne does not shy away from indulging in a romance with Roux. However like Tilo, Vianne too helps repair family ties like in the case of bringing an artistic young boy to break free from his mother’s rigid rules and unite with his roguish grandmother. Much like Tilo, Vianne also saves an abused housewife from her husband’s tyranny and helps her to find a voice for herself.

However unlike in The Mistress of Spices Vianne is able to continue with her life in the village once its inhabitants begins to accept her. Even the Count falls under the chocolate’s spell and learns to let bygones be bygones and look towards a brighter future. With him succumbing to his natural instincts the whole village is liberated. Though the north wind returns after her deed is done and calls the half-Mayan woman to another designation, Vianne throws her wanderlust to the wind and decides to make her home in Lansquenet.

There are several underlying themes in the movie: the nobility using the church as a means of exercising their power of the common folk and the need to liberate repressed instincts to lead a life worth living.

Juliette Binoche makes a lively Vianne. She captures her character’s warm eccentricity with zest. Her slight, knowing smirk is infectious and says what needs to be said without using words or gestures. Judi Dench is fitting as the difficult landlady who eventually wins her love and trust because she is not a conventionalist. Alfred Molina, Lena Olin and Carrie-Anne Moss are convincing in their characters. Hugh O’Conor provides comic relief as the young priest who is hounded by the Count. A disappointing element in Chocolat is that the dashing Johnny Depp is not given enough screen presence. His talents are wasted in brief appearances as the guitar-plucking traveler Roux.

Chocolat is alluring wrapped with some of the finest actors taking part in the production. Yet the movie is too lengthy and monotonous to make you develop an appetite for it. - Ruwini Jayawardana