A Chocolat spectre

For the little French village which forms the highly atmospheric setting of the film Chocolat (directed by Lasse Hallström) tranquility is defined by abstinence, order and a rigidly Christian sense of morality – until the arrival of the aberrant Vianne Rocher shatters this carefully maintained veneer. Vianne, with her tow of an illegitimate daughter and her imaginary pet kangaroo, also ushers in the sorcery of the North wind and the seductive power of chocolate. Much of the trajectory of the film is governed by the ensuing conflict between Vianne and Comte Paul de Reynaud, the village mayor, who struggles to persuade the village to continue practicing its old rituals and remain faithful to the church.

Chocolat discusses themes of gender, sexuality and religion, and one can argue, posits them in a Gothicized framework. Joanne Harris’ book of the same name, on which the movie is based, aimed at emulating the literary/ horror genre, and the genre manifests its marks architecturally in the film: the Church is the central image, not just in the film text, but also as a topographical location from which everything in the village seems to emanate (or conversely, recede). Thus the Church is the most definitive, defining entity in the village which structures normativity in the community. The notion of a stable society is generated in conjunction to Church regulations and beliefs of which Reynaud serves as the primary mediator. Consequently, people in the village are evaluated by the degree to which they adhere to or depart from this value system: Caroline, the pious, rule-abiding daughter of Vianne’s eccentric landlady Armande, falls closest to the purview of Reynaud, while Armande, who hosts Vianne and her chocolaterie, and Vianne herself are pushed to the far end of the spectrum as they gradually upturn these notions.

The film text is invested with a characteristic Gothicized aura, to the extent that Vianne assumes the figure of the witch/ sorceress who breaches the powerful religious harmony (or the attempt at this harmony) of the village and creates points of rupture which increase exponentially as the film progresses. Chocolate becomes an object which is transferred insidiously and clandestinely throughout the village, something of a spectral presence which works in opposition to the order of the Church.

Vianne is constructed as the “other” on the basis of several counts of exclusion: space, gender and expression of sexuality being the most prominent ones. She is an outsider who enters the community uninvited, carrying a multiplicity of potential transformations into a space previously insulated from any form of change. Pitted against the presiding authority figure of the village – Reynaud – she is immediately apparent as the “other” due to her gender, and perceived as a threat because she has no qualms about expressing her sexuality: by way of clothing, which by the standards of the village immediately seems promiscuous, and ultimately, because of her illegitimate daughter Anouk about whom she is never even remotely apologetic. Her “otherness” is conflated when she associates with a group of gypsies who arrive at the village by river; these gypsies who are already marginal to the community further aggravate the hostility of the village toward Vianne.

The film yields to a reading in terms of colonizer/ colonized binaries interestingly by positing Vianne not as the colonized “other” forced into a new space culminating in surrender to that space, but as a colonizer who enters the new space willingly and succeeds in winning over the community. Sexuality is the most powerful disruptive force which systematically disempowers the Church – right from the chocolaterie (“What’s the décor? Early Mexican brothel?” comments Armande when she first enters it) to Vianne’s sexual liaison with Roux the gypsy, and even Josephine’s emancipation from her abusive husband which relaxes her socio-sexual confinement and expressiveness.

Despite the reversal in the colonizer/ colonized binary (the film portrays the ingression of pagan ritual into a Christian milieu, albeit with the pagan figure in the position of the colonizer), the trope of the colonizer/ colonized remains largely unaltered, following a predictable arc of the colonizer’s initial entry into the potential colony, reactionary hostility, vulnerability to the ideas of the colonizer, and the process of imbibing the semiotics of the colonial regime into the native culture. Hence, by employing binaries of Christian/ pagan, good/ evil, deprivation/ excess, Chocolat posits that a society, however problematically organized, is always deformed by the introduction of the “other”, and the manner in which society reacts to this breach governs what kind of society is consequently synthesized.

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This piece was a class assignment: a film report on the gothic postcolonial.

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