A Lasse Hallstrom film, Chocolat delights the senses and evokes a sense of passion for life. Vianne, driven by the north wind arrives in the small town Lansquenet, with her daughter Anouk to open a chocolaterie using recipes over a thousand years old. Vianne enters the stark town and is welcomed by the Comte de Reynaud, the Mayor of Lansquenet, who has extraordinary control over the church and consequently the entire town. This relationship becomes one of frustration as Comte de Reynaud realises that Vianne will not comply with his expectations and social norms. This is highlighted by her refusal to attend church. Controversially, Vianne opens her chocolatier (during Lent!) and proceeds to reach into the hearts of the people in the community through her chocolate. However, not without facing the many obstacles forced upon her by the Comte. The story reveals the harsh reality of who is included and who is excluded and contemplates what it means to belong. It highlights the tension between what it means to deny oneself and what it is to be free in Christ. It explores the concepts of sin, redemption and forgiveness.
Although labelled as evil by the Comte de Reynaud, Vianne’s chocolatier is a place of acceptance and refuge for many in the town who are hurting. Francoise Drou enters the shop for the first time and Vianne connects with her in the usual way selecting a chocolate she believes will be her guest’s favourite. Vianne sends a gift home with Francoise for her husband to lift his libido and consequently the couple become regular visitors to the shop. I can not help but sense some form of renewal for their marriage as a result of their encounter with Vianne and her magical chocolates. Curiosity overcomes Josephine as she takes a look inside the Chocolaterie. A withdrawn woman, viewed by others as quite deranged, Josephine is persistently loved by Vianne and finds her value from this encounter. Vianne’s openness to share her chocolates with the people seems to create a sense of acceptance. Then almost like magic, the chocolate melts the social rigidities forced upon the people of the community. Josephine shares with Vianne in response to her invitation and the relationship blossoms, eventually giving Josephine the courage to leave her abusive husband and become confident in herself. Josephine begins to work in the shop and finds some purpose in her life. Once again renewal is revealed through this encounter, Josephine has been redeemed. It is in the Chocolaterie that Vianne brings together Armande Voizin and her estranged grandson Lu. In the refuge of the shop around a big mug of hot chocolate the love between Grandma and Grandson is ignited and another relationship is redeemed. But what about Serge (Josephine’s husband), does he find restitution? He is forced to confess his sin and to change his way by the Comte de Reynaud. However, there is a strong sense that Serge does not find any freedom or forgiveness in his acts. Sadly, Serge is used by the Comte to publicly illustrate the Comte’s understanding of sin and redemption. However, for the Comte de Reynaud there comes a point when he banishes Serge from the town, almost casting him aside as unredeemable. What will become of the dear old Comte? It appears to me that he finds restitution when he is set free from the things that bind him and cause him to become pious and judgemental, perhaps when he is broken he is truly redeemed.
Vianne’s open hospitality creates a space where all people are welcome and validated. Unlike the hospitality of the church people, the chocolatier is a place where all people have the opportunity to be included. The gypsies came to town and are excluded from every shop, except the Chocolaterie. Vianne welcomes them into her home almost in spite of those who reject them. Vianne and her crew bring together an amazing meal for Armande’s birthday party. After enjoying a delicious main course together Vianne announces that dessert will be held on the gypsies’ boat. This is followed by a moment of great tension as the people of the town are confronted with the challenge to interact directly with the outsiders. However, the people join together on the boat for dessert and appear to have a wonderful time together. From the shore, it is those who could not accept these outsiders who wallow in their grief. This meal demonstrates how the sharing of a meal can break down the tension between people and create a deeper level of acceptance for each other. When considering those who would consider themselves “in” and the others, it appears that the “insiders” are so much more miserable than the “outsiders.”
This leads me to ponder what it means to be free in Christ and how self denial is connected to that. It is Lent and the “holy” people of the church have given up all indulgences until easter. The main characters who are striving for this are Comte de Reynaud, Caroline Clairmont, the priest, Serge (during his attempted redemption) and Lu Clairmnt (under the instruction of his mother). Consequently, these characters are obliged to refuse any hospitality offered by Vianne through her chocolates. Throughout the film one cannot help but notice that those who are miserable are the Comte, Serge and Caroline. It seems that their act of self denial has become an act that binds them. Meanwhile Lu (without his mother’s knowledge) makes the decision to stop his fast and indulge while he is at the Chocolaterie. Lu, along with the others who venture into the shop and experience the hospitality of Vianne appear to have found a new freedom in their lives. It leads me to question what Jesus meant when he said that he came to give life in all its fulness. In the film, those who experience life in its fullness are those who were accepted by Vianne and received redemption in their lives: Josephine, the Drous, Lu and Armande. The denial of self for the others led to frustration and a determination to be good by their own means. The Comte becomes increasingly frustrated and eventually cracks. Eventually, the Comte breaks into the Chocolaterie and indulges in the chocolates. Vianne accepts the Comte de Reynaud as she does anyone else who enters her shop. The peace that the Comte was striving for was found in Vianne and those who accepted her hospitality. However, I do not believe that the fullness of life was a result of indulgence rather a recognition of the need to change. Looking deeper into Vianne’s character she did display self denial during the film. Vianne denied her own acceptance from others by accepting those who were considered outsiders. Perhaps self denial can lead to fullness of life if we undertake it with a more helpful attitude. Rather than seeking holiness through self denial as something to separate the good from the bad, we need to discover how self denial can bring people together. The film encourages us to look deeper into our understanding of what it means to be a good Christian. In his final sermon, the priest says that the people need to “measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create and who we include.” This is statement encapsulates the main message of the film and on reflection it is embodied through the hospitality displayed by Vianne and her daughter Anuk.
Finally, near the closing of the film, all the towns people come together embracing Vianne’s hospitable attitude and create a feast for Easter Sunday. This act of love displays the enormous impact that Vianne’s character has had in their lives. Surrounded by food and celebration the people come together, even the Comte, and the small town Lansquenet, has been redeemed.
I could not help but shed a tear of joy as the people finally embraced one another. My immediate response to the film was to be challenged by how people see God’s hospitality reflected in my life and encouraged me to question if I am as accepting and loving as Vianne. I can identify with many of the characters, who identify aspects about my own behaviour and attitudes that I share. Some of the realisations act as an encouragement while others speak out against unhelpful attitudes that I may hold. I do not believe that one can be passive as the enter the world of Chocolat. It draws you in and holds you there as you journey with the characters throughout their turmoil and joy. Gradually you realise it is the characters’ willingness to value each other which unites them and creates a sense of community around the table.