Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Sweet Treat

"Once upon a time there was a quiet little village in the French countryside whose people believed in tranquilite. Tranquility. If you lived in this village, you understood what was expected of you. You knew your place in the scheme of things. And if you happened to forget, someone would help remind you."

Opening narration

Having grown up in a small town (as I have mentioned on this blog before), I can understand how slowly change can be accepted in one. My small hometown isn't so small anymore (as I have also mentioned here before), but it is still small enough that it is probably susceptible to some of the same mindsets that existed there when it was maybe one–fifth its present size.

I can't remember anything as unsettling there as the arrival — on a "clever" wind — of a single mother/chocolatier (Juliette Binoche) and her 6–year–old daughter in a fictional French town that had been stagnating for years, decades, perhaps centuries.

That happened in the movie "Chocolat," which made its debut on this day in 2000. I missed it when it was in the theaters, but I saw it recently on Netflix — and it is one of those movies I deeply regret missing the first time. It was, indeed, a sweet treat.

Small towns are notorious for being centered on one church. My hometown, for example, was mostly Baptists although there was a fairly sizable population of Methodists there. In the village in the movie, it was apparently a Catholic church, and everyone went to church on Sunday. If you didn't, everyone knew.

Everyone in this town, it seemed, had a problem of some kind, and Binoche's arrival summoned all sorts of things out into the open in one way or another. That is something I have noticed about serene small towns — the serenity often hides something more sinister lurking beneath the surface.

It seemed to be common knowledge that Binoche was an atheist and had an illegitimate daughter, and the villagers had seen her wearing dresses that were much more colorful than the ones the local women wore, but the movie never really resolved the question of Binoche's true identity. Some people thought she was a witch; Binoche's character hinted that she was a pagan princess. Presumably that was why she had a "knack," as she put it, for picking out which of the many varieties of chocolates in her shop was a customer's particular favorite — or, perhaps, more to the point, which one would have the greatest effect on a given customer's personality.

Does that seem complicated? It isn't, really.

As film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "'Chocolat' is about a war between the forces of paganism and Christianity, and because the pagan heroine has chocolate on her side, she wins. Her victory is delayed only because, during Lent, a lot of the locals aren't eating chocolate."

Actually, there's more to it than that. (There always is, isn't there?) Binoche rubbed the mayor (Alfred Molina) the wrong way, and he forbade the people of the village from frequenting her shop, vowing that she would be out of business by Easter. She had already influenced two women in the village and changed their behavior, and the comte — whose control of the town was so complete that he wrote the sermons that the priest delivered on Sundays — resented the fact that Binoche was tempting the villagers with chocolate at a time when they were supposed to be abstaining from earthly pleasures.

One of the women Binoche influenced was her landlady (Judi Dench), whose daughter refused to permit her to see her grandson. The other woman (Lena Olin) was a victim of spousal abuse. She summed up the reality of a small town in a simple — yet elegant, in its way — sentence: "People talk."

Yes, they do. About all kinds of things. And people. That is, by far, their favorite topic of all.

The comte had problems of his own. The movie never really let the audience know what the situation was with his wife, but there were plenty of indications that she had left him. He would only admit that she was visiting Venice — but, as Dench's character remarked, she had been there for months. And everyone seemed to know she had left him. Everyone but the comte, who probably knew but refused to admit it, even to himself.

Well, Binoche's shop did not go out of business, but she found herself in a holy war with the comte.

And in this holy war she enlisted the help of a gypsy (Johnny Depp).

Ebert wrote that the movie was "charming and whimsical," and I agree. There were places where the movie could have turned even more serious than it did, especially when the clash between the church and the atheist came to the forefront. But it kept its rather bemused distance and made no judgments.

It followed the Joe Friday storytelling approach — Just the facts. Even if it is a fictional tale. (If you're old enough to remember Dragnet, you'll know what I'm talking about. If not, never mind.)

"Chocolat" was nominated for five Oscars — Best Picture, Best Actress (Binoche), Best Supporting Actress (Dench), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score — but lost all five. Pity.