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September-October 2017

Cinema Therapy by Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D.


The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any. — Alice Walker

Chocolat, made in 2000, starring Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina, Lina Olin and Leslie Caron, takes place "once upon a time" in a quiet French village that that has become stuck in centuries old traditions, rigid morality, and dull monotony. Chocolat presents the viewer with the ingredients for change while it challenges the myth, "we have to be right or we are wrong."

The Story
Our small French town is governed by Comte de Reynaud, whose wealth and books do not console him for the absence of his wife, who he claims is visiting Venice, but may have packed up and moved out. Outwardly kind, our controlling mayor styles himself as the local mediator of morals, even writing the sermons Father Henri delivers from the pulpit ― sermons that put the compliant villagers to sleep. During the church service, while the villagers sleep through a sermon prepared by the mayor, "a sly wind blew in from the north."

Things in the sleepy well-controlled village are shaken up ― and the Mayor's authority is severely challenged ― when the vibrant, friendly, Vianne (Binoche) decides to open a forbidden chocolate shop across the square from the church. Vianne stands out as "different" and shocking because of her colorful clothes and her red cape, failure to attend church, and her illegitimate child. Now, opening a chocolate shop before Lent pushes the Mayor to the brink. He is horrified causing Reynaud to openly speak against Vianne for tempting the people with her chocolate during a time of abstinence and self-denial. He refers to her as an "evil temptress" and warns everyone to be vigilant and to resist her and her chocolates

However, Vianne, undaunted, proceeds with filling her shop windows with mouth-watering chocolate delicacies. Seduced by the chocolatier's openness, the outwardly aloof villagers, each with some hidden unhappiness in their lives, begin to cautiously venture inside and confide their troubles to her. Vianne's ability to perceive her customers' desires and satisfy them with just the right confection, coaxes the villagers to abandon themselves to temptation―just as Lent begins.

Her shop, La Chocolaterie Maya, much to Reynaud's disapproval, has become a place of healing. Her chocolates quickly begin to change the lives of the townspeople waking them to the sweetness, passion, and fullness of life, even enabling some to take risks and stand up for themselves! An old man summons the courage to confess his love for the village widow (Leslie Caron);Vianne's elderly landlady, Armande, dares attend a party and dance with a young gypsy (Depp); Luc, free from his over-protective mother, Caroline, no longer hides his blossoming artistic talent or his relationship with his grandmother, Armande. We witness a breakdown of relationships based on abuse, and fear. Silent no more, Josephine (Lena Olin) leaves her abusive husband and is not fooled when he pretends to be "a changed man." A drunken Serge breaks into the Chocolaterie and attempts to attack both women before Josephine knocks him out with a skillet. Through Vianne's mentoring and protection, Josephine maintains her freedom.

While the not-so-veiled rivalry between Vianne and Reynaud intensifies, a band of river gypsies camp out on the outskirts of the village. The town objects to their presence, but Vianne embraces them, developing a mutual attraction to Traveller, Roux (Depp), an outcast like herself. They hold a birthday party for Armande with other village members and gypsies on Roux's boat. Watching Luc dancing with his grandmother, Caroline begins to see her son's grandmother's influence as beneficial. After the party, while Roux and Vianne make love, Serge sets the boat on fire where Josephine and Anouk are sleeping. They escape unharmed, but Vianne's spirit is deadened, and Roux packs up and leaves with his group. Although Armands's long-standing hostility with her daughter, Caroline ends, her death soon after devastates both of them.

Despite the town's shifting sentiment, Reynaud remains staunch in his self-denial and abstinence from pleasures such as chocolate. On the Saturday before Easter, Vianne's shop window is decked out with a full display of chocolate. He becomes more devastated after he watches Caroline leave the chocolatier. He convinces himself that chocolate makes people stray from their faith, so he sneakily climbs into Vianne's shop window to destroy the preparations for the Easter festival. After accidentally tasting a bit of chocolate that fell on his lips, he yields to temptation and devours most of the chocolate in the window display. He collapses, then falls asleep in a chocolate-induced stupor in the window.

The next day, Vianne and Father Henri awaken the intoxicated Mayor Reynard, and a mutual respect is established. Going forward, the Pastor writes his own Sunday sermons. The festival is a success, Josephine takes over running Serge's café, which she renames Café Armande, and Vianne, despite her constant need for change, resolves to stay put. And, so the "sly north wind leaves."

Psychological Implications: Outsiders, Insiders, Control, Temptation, Change
Chocolat illustrates a hidden war between the forces that can control us, our lives, and our thinking. In Chocolat, the psychological emphasis is on identifying the characters' dynamics, how they seem to have fallen (unconsciously) into victim/victimizer positions, and their process of transformation. Through observing these dynamics, we view what CG Jung terms, Shadow Content, meaning, the aspects of the self we repress and project onto others. Psychologically, each film character represents different facets of the personality, an inner experience, understood as metaphors for psychological change. The mayor informs us about the way we recoil from the perceived ugly in ourselves, and project it onto others, in this case, Vianne. He is filled with rage, lonely, and rich. Vianne is his opposite, his shadow, kind, sweet-tempered, devoted, and poor. We see that transformation is possible when one begins to understand one's own inner conflicts and open up to the many ingredients of change (in this case, chocolate!). Chocolat shows us that it is not just the women who, in their personal lives, have come to occupy the submissive role to a dominant masculine energy ― it is the whole village. Mayor Reynaud exemplifies the dominant role to the villagers' communal submissiveness. The town itself is like an enmeshed family system where even church participation holds the townsfolk hostage to the Mayor's control.

Vianne, undaunted by the Mayor's threats, presents as a wise counterpart to his control and dominance. Her character exemplifies the beneficial trickle-down effect of this transformation on others. These opposing aspects within have a unifying quality brought together through symbols from the unconscious, in this case, chocolate. Wholeness, healthier relationships, and healing are the outcome. Chocolat illustrates an important therapeutic tool that offers us an awareness of these dynamics, how they perpetuate the crisis state, and offers models of change ― also showing us how a society, where dated and often illogical rules dominate, can still be transformed so it can no longer control us, our lives, and our thinking.

The "sly north wind" that the Mayor was so concerned about is a metaphor for change. The villagers, sleepwalking through life, tolerating being controlled by the mayor, resenting outsiders with outside views, are lured into life's passion by the chocolatier who gives away tasty morsels that contain the life-changing magical ingredients. After experiencing a taste of pleasure, Renaud becomes more balanced and respectful of other's beliefs, and their strengths. His belief that he has to be right or he is wrong, no longer holds substance.

Chocolat holds a psychological mirror up, that reflects challenges we all face. The individual characters manifest what lies within each of us; character flaws, strengths, our buried potential, and the god/goddess within.

Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D. (PSY22909) is a clinical psychologist who practices in Encino. She leads Women's Empowerment Groups that help women learn the tools to move beyond self-destructive relationship patterns. She may be reached at 818.501.4123 or cgelt@earthlink.net. Her website is www.drgelt.com. Her office address is 16055 Ventura Blvd. #1129 Encino, CA 91436.

San Fernando Valley Chapter – California Marriage and Family Therapists