A woman and her young daughter arrive in a sleepy 1959 provincial village in France. (Intriguingly, but not very subtly as far as symbolism goes, they travel wearing bright red cloaks --- I mean, who does that? Besides Little Red Riding Hood, of course, and we’re all aware of her tribulations.) Now, small towns have been employed by writers of all stripes since the year dot as vehicles for all kinds of conflict --- Thornton Wilder, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King and Arthur Miller immediately come to mind, and the list could go on indefinitely. This is because small human conglomerations are such delicious hotbeds of all kinds of human foibles, sometimes more so than large ones. (Perhaps because the people are all packed into much less square footage… you know, you get double the vice at half the price.) But these foibles are usually masked by highly polished veneers of respectability --- depending on when your story takes place, of course. (Which is something to consider: how openly displayed are these foibles? In 1959, not very. Today, in contrast --- perplexingly and tragically --- bad behaviour seems not something to be even discreetly masked, but rather, openly celebrated. One of the reasons why Things Are Such A Mess, in my humble correct opinion. QED.)
Anyway, it never takes much solvent to strip away those veneers, and Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, the village that’s the setting for Chocolat, is no exception. And that’s what makes this tale so worthy of a writer’s inspection.
So… foibles… let’s see… where to begin? Well, all the Seven Cardinal Sins --- the staples of conflict --- are there, of course, because they’re present wherever human behaviours are involved. (I’ll save you the trouble: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. You’re welcome.) But the foibles that I think really stand out in this particular tale are xenophobia and egocentrism, two great foibles for writers to exploit because they’re just so universal, regardless of time or place, and that’s what I want to present for your entertainment and edification today.
Let’s start with xenophobia (literally, ‘fear of strangers’ or ‘outsiders’). Unfortunately, it seems so integral to the human condition: we’re afraid of people different from our ‘group.’ And also unfortunately, fear is only a short hop, skip and jump to active hate. Apparently, there’s something weirdly reassuring in our genetic makeup to homogeneity (sameness) and weirdly unsettling about heterogeneity (differentness). And let’s not forget known and unknown as additional, related factors.
In Chocolat, the red-cloaked woman, Vianne Rocher, and her daughter, Anouk, are unknowns. They’re different from the townspeople. More than that: they actively refuse to fit in --- admittedly, mom much more so than daughter, which isn’t terribly surprising (pre-teen children in particular are generally very conscious about fitting in) --- which, of course, incurs suspicion and hostility. And in the case of the village’s mayor, who seems to regard Lansquenet as his own personal fiefdom (superbly played with quietly venomous determination by Alfred Molina), Vianne’s refusal to conform engenders active persecution on his part. And when Johnny Depp’s character --- a wandering hippy who literally sails into collective village life on a houseboat --- shows up and finds a spiritual ally in Vianne… well, that just stokes the fire of village xenophobia further (setting up a great scene reminiscent of Thomas Becket’s murder by King Henry II’s followers in 1170: one of the villagers hears the mayor’s frustration and unilaterally decides to torch the house boats --- although to his credit, the mayor is horrified on belatedly discovering this.)
Personally, I think egocentrism is the greatest sin/evil of all, trumping even the seven cardinals, because my life observations have been that all the others derive from it. I call egocentrism ‘The Great I Want.’ I want this. I want that. I want it right now. And I know better than you how things should be done, so it must be done my way. And (most importantly) my wants are paramount, while yours are irrelevant. Seems to me that most bad behaviours spring from those five statements.
Now, we’re all born egocentric --- it’s the only thing babies know. Nothing particularly wrong with that. But what’s supposed to happen is that parents gradually educate their children out of egocentrism, at least its most extreme manifestations: wait your turn; don’t take things that don’t belong to you; you can’t have everything, and in any event, you certainly can’t have it right away. (Again, personally, seems to me there are a pile ‘o parents out there either not doing their job or not doing it very well.)
All this is of absolutely critical importance to our survival as a species, because a society full of rampant egocentrics is irrevocably headed for imminent destruction (sound familiar?).
So egocentrism is, really, the great driver of character behaviour in our stories.
There, it’s great. In real life, well, not so much.
But perhaps our takeaway should be the anti-egocentric/anti-xenophobic comments made near the film’s conclusion by Pere Henri, the parish priest: I'm not sure what the theme of my homily today ought to be. Do I want to speak of the miracle of Our Lord's divine transformation? Not really, no. I don't want to talk about His divinity. I'd rather talk about His humanity. I mean, you know, how He lived His life, here on Earth. His kindness, His tolerance... Listen, here's what I think. I think that we can't go around... measuring our goodness by what we don't do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think... we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create... and who we include.