The magic of chocolate—so many of us are grateful for its power to transform a gloomy winter afternoon into a cozy cuddle with a steaming mug of cocoa and a book, for the bitter-sweet flourish of a flourless chocolate cake at the end of a meal, or for mirthful mischief while stealing from a box of cocoa-dusted truffles.
The French/American actress and dancer, Leslie Caron had a small part in a film called Chocolat released in 2000. She played an elderly woman, quite the opposite of her ingenue starring role in An American in Paris 50 years earlier. In the latter film, the magic of chocolate transformed a mean-spirited, conservative French village into a community of love, respect, and joie de vivre.
In the same film, another gifted actress, Juliette Binoche played Vianne, a young, unmarried mother who settled into the village with her daughter and opened a chocolate shop during Lent. The village mayor objected and became her nemesis. Nevertheless, many villagers eventually succumbed to her candies and cakes, which changed their attitudes and behaviors. For example, Dame Judy Dench’s Armande, Vianne’s unhappy landlady sipped a hot chocolate with whipped cream and chili powder, remembered her happy childhood, and slowly emerged from her drab cocoon of old clothes and neglected surroundings to embrace the good life. Although Dench and Binoche played their roles well neither is more of a star in the film than a visual banquet of chocolate, from cakes to hot chocolate and love potion truffles in-between, which steals every scene inside the shop, with one exception, the arrival on screen of Leslie Caron as the widow Madame Audel.
At first, remembering her gamine character Lise Bouvier in An American in Paris, I lamented Caron’s apparent aging, softened by makeup and the camera lens. Yet, her appearance resonated like the arrival of an old friend. Although Caron’s role was small, the character she played epitomized how chocolate facilitated change and renewal in a villager’s life. Madame Audel had spent 30 years of self-denial marking her widowhood. The healing powers of ground roasted cocoa beans encouraged her to embrace life and romance again.
I have followed Leslie Caron’s career since 1951—on screen from the cafes of Paris, the wharves of Marseilles, the salons of Gigi, and the puppetry of Lili. Although I have not seen her entire filmography, I have always associated her with romance, French savoir faire, and the good life. [Leslie Caron’s birthday is coming up] She was born July 1, 1931, in France, the daughter of Margaret, an American Broadway dancer and Claude, a chemist and founder of the artisanal perfumier Guermantes in Paris where he had a pharmacy. Leslie trained in the French National Conservatory of Dance. Roland Petit hired her at age 16, to dance in his company, then fame struck. Another movie idol of mine, Gene Kelley, saw her dance in Paris and cast her as his partner in my all-time favorite film, An American in Paris. As a result of her stunning performance, MGM gave her an extended contract and Caron went on to make many musical and dramatic films. In later years, she continued her film career in Europe, performed in television crime series for which she won an Emmy in 2007, and more recently had a role in the Masterpiece production of The Durrells of Corfu. She published her autobiography in 2010-2011 in English and French. The French Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur is among the many awards she has won. Her personal life includes three marriages and three divorces, two children, and a hotel south of Paris that she owned and operated until 2009. Today, she lives in London, England. I wonder if her hotel’s dining room served tantalizing chocolate confections.
Chocolat might be about the healing powers of chocolate; yet it also addresses the importance of persistence in the face of repression, envy, bigotry, and brutality. Before chocolate worked its magic, the village priest was dogma-bound and his parishioners feared social ostracism, a tavern owner abused his wife mercilessly, and village leaders plotted Vianne’s undoing. The film is a seductive fantasy, for who would not want a luscious, chocolate cure for all our ills. Unfortunately, our species needs more than a mug of cocoa to change our destructive and hurtful behaviors; but a little chocolate now and then wouldn’t hurt. The film Chocolat provided that little break from what we call harsh reality. Caron, the former dancer, actor, and innkeeper, will always represent to me the better contributions of France to Western culture, and in a small way a rich and delicious way of making chocolate, the taste of which puts contemporary woes in a temporary background.
Susan Bass Marcus 6/18/2021