monthly column from author/activist
David Steinberg

Comes Naturally #106

Let Them Eat Chocolate

Lasse Hallström's charming film, Chocolat, pulls off a rather impressive and tidy little trick. It points a perceptive finger at some important issues that lie behind our culture's deeply ingrained fear of pleasure. But it does so in such a matter-of-fact, wholesome, unobjectionable way that everyone gets to walk out of the theater with a warm-in-the-belly pleasure-positive feeling unspoiled by the familiarly bitter aftertaste of grappling with issues that are complex and controversial.

On its surface, Chocolat is little more than a fairy tale celebrating pleasure over repression, generosity over miserliness, compassion over moral judgment. You've got your good guys and your bad guys, as easy to tell apart as they were in the Westerns where the good guys wore white Stetsons and the bad guys wore black. In Chocolat, the good guys (those ready to be amicably seduced into pleasure) wear winning smiles and move their bodies with graceful ease, while the bad guys (those perennially on guard against their pleasure-seeking impulses) offer stern frowns and move around with stylized rigidity.

The two camps are, of course, fated to do battle with each other as certainly as God must with Satan, or Wyatt Earp with the Clanton Gang. The climax, predictable as Armageddon or the showdown at the O.K. Corral, comes on Easter Sunday when a Pagan fertility ritual crosses the path of more conventional homage to both the mystery of the Resurrection, and the release of the film's townsfolk from the restrictions of Lent.

Juliette Binoche plays Vianne, a traveling shaman (witch, some would say) whose mission is to "unlock inner yearnings and reveal destinies" through the medium of chocolate mixed with cayenne -- a recipe for pleasure and insight supposedly going back to the mysteries of ancient Mayan eroticism. She and her smart, willful, no-nonsense daughter blow into town -- a very small, very provincial, very French, very Catholic, very pleasure-fearing town, if you please. Vianne is a female incarnation of the archtypical outside agitator so familiar to Hollywood classics -- the mysterious, devilish stranger whose very appearance spells disruption for the previously bounded, protected, and restricted universe of the group s/he stumbles across.

From Chocolat
Vianne's instruments of revolution are the apparently irresistible sensuality of chocolate combined with her uncanny ability to see into the heart and soul of each villager she meets. She is assisted by a Mayan Rorschach-like plate onto which the town's pleasure seekers unselfconsciously project their secret hopes and fears. One by one, Vianne identifies, sanctifies, and encourages each of the villager's forbidden desires with a smile, a wink, and the chocolate goody she knows will most deeply arouse them. Since the passions she unearths turn out to be rather innocent, the result is quick and immediate happiness for all but the most dedicated prudes.

Hallström's tone in Chocolat is gentle and playful, never harsh and confrontative. The film's few excursions into the troublesome realities of hate and violence come and go quickly, and resolve with almost magical ease. An abusive husband is tamed with no more harm done than a little broken glass, cheerfully swept up by the unflappable and ever-beautiful Binoche. Even the more substantial destruction wrought by the town's lone vigilante is rendered innocuous by the carefree spirit of a band of itinerant river people.

There is none of the horror of Boys Don't Cry here (where the released passions of transgendered Brandon Teena result in his rape and murder), nor even the lesser unpleasantries of Quills (where the transgressive passions of the Marquis de Sade bring about both his suppression and his death). Films like Boys Don't Cry and Quills force us to confront the very real devastation that is manifested daily by the decidedly uncharming agents of sexual intolerance and pleasure phobia.

But Chocolat -- whose unleashed pleasures result in nothing more controversial than the consumption of sensual foods, a bit of flirting and dancing, and the extension of marital, heterosexual sex into middle and old age -- studiously avoids the explosive realities of sexual and pleasure diversity. Instead it focuses on the more general idea of enthusiastically embracing the very concept of pleasure itself.

Despite these gross simplifications, Chocolat is more than just another Disneyesque piece of fluff. Pathetically, in this twisted little culture of ours, even the idea of actively pursuing pleasure is decidedly suspect, and Chocolat ever so sweetly points out that even the most innocuous embrace of pleasure has consequences that are both subtle and controversial, particularly with regard to women's societally designated roles and their gender-related disempowerment.

Chocolat draws the connection between the suppression of pleasure and the suppression of our animal natures, the suppression of artistic creativity, the suppression of Third World cultures, and (most fundamentally) the suppression of women across the board. It is no accident that the film's priestesses of pleasure are a strong, independent woman who proudly asserts that she has never been married, and her equally strong, independent daughter who quips, argues, and gambles with the best of the men. These are women who are dependent on men for neither their financial nor their emotional well-being and anyone who attempts to treat them otherwise is in for a rude awakening.

The chocolaterie that Vianne opens becomes the one place in town where transgressive women can meet, talk, and encourage each other in their various rebellions against assigned roles and constrained feelings. Armande Voizin -- a crusty, wise sharp-tongued grandmother (played to Oscar perfection by the wonderful Judi Dench) -- reveals how she has for decades been scorned by her excessively proper daughter because, she says, "I swear, I read dirty books, I eat and drink what I like."

Josephine, a battered wife who is dismissed by everyone in town as insane, is quick to declare, sanely enough, that all it takes to be seen as crazy is for a woman to refuse to cheerfully perform all the tasks of the proper wife. Under the influence of Vianne and her chocolates, Josephine soon skips out on her abusive husband, takes refuge in the chocolaterie, and confirms her independence by physically triumphing over her husband when he tries to force her to return to him. "The worst is over," Armande reassures a shaky Josephine in the sanctity of the chocolate shop the day after the confrontation. "You have shown him what you are made of."

Vianne herself, in an angry confrontation with the town's mayor and staunchest moralizer (his creed is "hard work, modesty and self-discipline"), makes clear that she is not about to "shrivel up and blow away" when the mayor threatens to drive her out of business and out of town. Her determination to challenge the status quo is seconded by Armande who wants to flaunt the ethic of pleasure by throwing a grand birthday party for herself, even if it happens to fall on Good Friday. "Let's show the bastards we're ready to go down dancing," she declares with all the fire and eloquence of Emma Goldman.

While Lasse Hallström might be the last to see her this way, Vianne as the traveling ambassador of pleasure is cast in precisely the role once assigned to sacred whores -- priestesses who became skilled in the arts of pleasure for the purpose of bringing spiritual enlightenment to both themselves and the people around them. Not surprisingly, the outrage and condemnation Vianne encounters from the men and moralists who are determined to tell everyone what to do and (more significantly) what not to do, are hostilities well-known to women of pleasure everywhere.

Indeed, Vianne's chocolaterie performs -- in a kinder, gentler way -- many of the functions more commonly associated with small town brothels and, once upon a time, with urban pleasure houses as well. This is the place in town devoted to the undisguised pursuit of pleasure, where pleasure is valued for its own sake, where the anti-pleasure attitudes of society-at-large are to be left at the door, a place that provides the women in its sphere with a sisterhood and degree of financial independence impossible for them to find elsewhere. Indeed, it is to a large degree because these parallel pleasure-houses perform these very functions that they are also fated to be condemned and assaulted by all those who see pleasure not as a source of sanity and self-expression but as being essentially the work of the devil.

In the fairy tale world of Chocolat, it is the evil of enjoying chocolate that is associated by the town moralists with the sinister stranger lurking outside the school yard, that is equated with "slovenly pleasure that will contaminate our town and the innocence of the children," and that is dismissed as just another of "Satan's many disguises" -- exactly the sorts of epithets used in the real world by crusaders against the supposed evils of pornography and prostitution. Mayor Reynaud's campaign rallying townspeople to "boycott immorality" in the name of "family, church, and community" could be taken almost word for word from any of the many decency campaigns and boycotts that were organized, for example, in many metropolitan centers at the turn of the century by anti-prostitution zealots.

As (y)our new President makes clear that he intends to unleash society's most rabid anti-pleasure dogs without delay, we can only hope that the townspeople of our cosmopolitan yet provincial world take to heart not only the film's honey-coated defense of pleasure, but also its closing sermon. In it, Père Henri, the wide-eyed, Elvis-Presley-loving town cleric, suggests to his parishioners that "we can't measure our goodness by what we don't do, by what we resist, but only by what we embrace, what we do, and who we include" in our universe of love and concern.

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