Chocolat: The Most Over-looked Feminist Film of the 21st Century
The film poster for Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat lures potential viewers with a warmly-hued photograph of the beautiful French actress Juliette Binoche hand-feeding chocolate to a young Johnny Depp while gazing into his eyes.
This poster is misleading. It, along with the movie’s suggestive tagline, “Sinfully Delicious,” leads the first-time viewer to assume the film is a sultry love story with plenty of steamy sex scenes (with or without involving food).
However, Chocolat is not a love story; and, some would say sadly, one could claim Johnny Depp is only part of the subplot. In fact, the story would stand alone fine without him ever wooing the protagonist.
Granted, it’s classified as a “romantic drama,” but the fact is, Chocolat is much more than the heated romantic film it’s chalked up to be. Rather, it’s a story of self love and familial love found through a multi-faceted exploration of feminist values.
The movie follows Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) and her six-year-old daughter, Anouk, who arrive in a small village in France and open a chocolaterie. At the time this movie takes place, 1959, Vianne may not have called herself a feminist, but her fictional character is feminism personified. It’s not long before the mother-daughter duo realizes they have settled in a strict patriarchal religious community. The most influential and powerful figure is the mayor, Paul de Reynaud, who exercises his control of the people through his hand in the church. Reynaud immediately feels the earthquake at his foundation when this unorthodox, atheist, independent female appears and opens a chocolaterie – just in time for Lent, the Christian holiday of fasting, abstinence, and self-denial.
The mayor expends enormous energy trying to dispirit Vianne and drive out her business of “temptation,” which he feels so threatening to his power. Instead of fleeing, however, she forms unlikely ties in the community. Her influence helps repair several frayed familial relationships injured by the suffocating rules of orthodoxy. By refusing to break, she watches the patriarchy crumble around her.
Perhaps the movie poster is another product of the patriarchy – feeling the need to include a male love-interest, even though he’s hardly essential to the plot. It could just be luring in viewers with the promise of a Depp romance. Either way, it’s much more than Johnny being hand-fed chocolate. It is an empowering story saturated with feminist themes.
Chocolat passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. The Bechdel Test is a simple test created in 1985 by Alison Bechdel that sheds light on the not-so-blatant reflection of the patriarchy in film. It includes three questions: Are there two or more female characters who have names? Do they talk to each other? Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?
The number of films that do not pass this test is reeling. (No pun intended.)
Chocolat passes the test immediately by having a woman and her daughter as the lead roles in the film. Even better, the viewer realizes almost immediately that Vianne is a single mother, but the writer finds no need for this to be a matter of discord in the protagonist’s life. Vianne herself states at some point that Anouk’s father is unknown, and she shows no remorse or shame for this. She feels no need to explain further, and she doesn’t seem to suffer emotionally for raising a child without a male counterpart. In fact, she seems to enjoy it thoroughly, and she and her daughter have an amazing and healthy relationship. The movie makes no further issue of this fact – there is no yearning for a man’s support or shame for having an “illegitimate” child, as Anouk is referred to by Reynaud. Other than this incident, there is no negativity surrounding their situation; Vianne and her daughter possess no issues arising from being alone.
Some may argue that Anouk’s imaginary kangaroo friend is the child’s attempt to fill a gap left by the lack of a father figure in her life; however, this is refuted in the end when Vianne decides to stay permanently in the village, and the kangaroo friend leaves Anouk for another adventure. This clarifies that the imaginary friend was a substitute for companions the child wasn’t able to keep for having moved so often, and not for the lack of a male figurehead.
The fact that the protagonist is a single woman raising a child alone and the plot brings no issue to this is empowering to women everywhere who are single mothers, whether by choice or not. With Vianne, it is not clear whether this aspect of her life is by choice, but it is irrelevant since Vianne is both capable of and happy to raise a child independently.
Vianne’s independence quickly intrigues the town outcast. At first, Josephine is a mousey, friendless kleptomaniac known as the town crazy. “She waltzes to her own tune,” they say. Vianne refuses people’s admonishments to stay away from Josephine, and instead her kindness lures the woman. When Josephine suddenly arrives banging on the door of Vianne’s chocolaterie in the night with a suitcase in her hand and a gash on her forehead, it is clear that the woman is not insane, but rather suffers the mental symptoms of long-term domestic abuse.
“If you don’t dig your flowerbeds, or if you don’t pretend that you want nothing more in your life than to serve your husband three meals a day, and give him children, and vacuum under his ass, then you’re crazy,” Josephine says. The mayor claims that Josephine is bound by the “sacrament of marriage” to stay with and honor her husband and plots to make her return to her abuser. Meanwhile, the abusive husband’s main concern is that the town will laugh at him because his wife left him. Josephine is clearly another victim of the strict patriarchal society she has been living in, which has cornered her through fear of judgment and rejection to stay with her abuser, despite its toll on her mental health.
Josephine moves into the apartment above the chocolaterie with Vianne and Anouk and learns the savory art of making chocolate – and the sweet life of freedom from abuse. Surrounded by empowerment and independence and allowed to practice creativity and live on her own terms, she thrives. As the wound on her head heals, she heals as well. Halfway through the film, she is a completely different woman, undeniably sane and smiling.
When, some time later, her husband comes knocking at the chocolaterie, sober and penitent, apologizing with flowers in his hand, Josephine graciously accepts both. When he assumes she will be “coming home,” though, she firmly refuses. She has finally realized her worth as a human being and as a woman and, in her new-found strength, refuses to return to a cycle of domestic abuse.
Her decision is made more concrete in a symbolic action in the following scenes when her husband returns in the night in a drunken rage, breaks into the shop, and spews misogynistic insults. “You are nothing without me! You can’t even use a skillet!” Vianne attempts to fight him off, but he pins her to the ground and begins to choke her violently. Meanwhile, Josephine takes the opportunity to find the nearest weapon – an iron pan – and whacks her husband in the head with it. “Who says I don’t know how to use a skillet?” And again, misogyny crashes to the ground.
The character of Josephine is an example of a woman defying patriarchy and realizing they are more than their ability to cook, clean and be a mother. She is a reminder that not every woman must be domestic to be fulfilled in life. Josephine also serves as an inspiration to women suffering domestic abuse, showing that it is possible to escape on one’s own terms and to demand the respect everyone deserves equally.
Vianne embodies respect. She does not allow people’s opinions of her to diminish her self-respect, and, likewise, she respects and is open to other people’s opinions. For example, when Anouk comes home from school crying about the rumors being spread about her mother and asking her why they don’t go to church like the other families, Vianne responds, “Well, you can if you want to, but it won’t make things easier.” She evidently respects other people’s views, and even encourages her daughter to have her own. Still, she refuses to let hers be compromised by misogyny. Instead of conforming to the town’s restrictive unspoken dress-code for women, she continues to dress how she chooses. She is ridiculed for wearing bright red instead of black and gray and for embracing shoulder-baring necklines. Her daughter cries, “Why can’t you wear black shoes like the other mothers?” Vianne just sighs. In the immediate scenes, she is shown wearing her signature velvety, red high-heels.
As a feminist figure, Vianne dresses how she wants – sexy even – and still demands to be respected.
Because of this self respect, she is not seeking love and respect elsewhere. However, when she meets Roux, a handsome gypsy “river rat” who plays Django Reinhardt songs on his guitar, there is obvious chemistry, and she allows the love to unfold. She finds in him a man who interests her and who respects her; but, not once does she consider giving up her own life for him. She doesn’t desperately pursue Roux, but she does allow everything to unfold naturally. She remains her own person, her own woman, who doesn’t need a man or feel superior to him, but who is open to love as equals, realizing she can succeed with him or without him. When he leaves, she is not diminished by his absence, but when he returns unexpectedly at the end of the film, she is happy. The fact that Vianne is a single woman whose primary occupation or concern is not finding a man is a breath of fresh air in Hollywood.
Before Roux leaves, as Lent is coming to an end, Vianne organizes a symbolic fertility celebration for Easter Sunday. The Christian holiday of Easter has its roots in the Pagan celebration of Ostara, a welcoming of the spring equinox and celebration of fertility. Ancient pagan religions almost always worshiped male and female deities, and archaeologists and historians believe that many of these ancient societies were matriarchal in nature; they contest that in many matriarchal societies, women may have been honored more for their ability to give birth, but that men and women were treated as equals. This contrasts with the patriarchal societies of the last few thousand years, which condone the oppression of women.
The day before the fertility celebration, the chocolatiers create all kinds of beautifully-constructed chocolate art – including a tall chocolate goddess of fertility.
Perhaps the most symbolic moment of the film comes when Reynaud, the mayor, sneaks into the chocolate shop the night before Easter and chops off the head of the chocolate goddess. In this moment, the symbol of women’s power is smashed by the film’s symbol of the patriarchy, only leading to his lowest point when he gorges himself on the chocolate, finally succumbing to temptation. Collapsing in a heap of tears and falling asleep, exhausted by his efforts to maintain control. When Vianne finds him there in a pathetic heap the next morning, the symbol of the goddess is destroyed, but Vianne is still standing in a symbolic feminist defeat of the patriarchy.
This scene is feminist in nature for another reason, as well. Feminism is not just about empowering women after thousands of years of oppression, but ultimately for equality between genders. It is important to note that the preacher himself suffers from the patriarchal system he promotes. Throughout the film he struggles with accepting that his wife has left him. He tells the townspeople she is on vacation in Venice, but as the months go on it becomes more and more apparent that she is not returning. Reynaud remains in denial until late in the film when his secretary gently says, “I don’t believe anyone would think less of you if you were to say she was never coming back.” In this moment, Reynaud feels his vulnerability keenly. He feels emasculated and afraid to show his emotions. When he is found by Vianne, lying in a pile of broken chocolate in her shop window after crying himself to sleep, she shows him compassion, and his need to fit the patriarchal expectations of what it means to be “manly” are dropped when he accepts that he is allowed to be vulnerable and sad.
Easter morning, the young preacher, who bears witness to the major events of the film from afar, delivers a sermon far different from his former ones, expressing the change of heart in the entire town. The sermon’s theme is inclusion of everyone, despite differences, wrapping up the film with a strong message of acceptance. With its display of feminist action, strong female characters, and themes of acceptance, one does not have to squint to read the powerful and inspiring feminist message in Chocolat.
Chocolat. Dir. Lasse Lasse Hallström. Perf. Johnny Depp, Juliette Binoche. Bac Films, 2000. Film.
Goddess Remembered. Dir. Donna Read. Studio D, National Film Board of Canada, 1989.
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