A few years ago (2000), there was a movie I had great hopes from. It was this thing called Chocolat and I thought it was going to be a really brilliant movie. To begin with, it had an awesome cast: not only did it feature Juliette Binoche (who IMHO is one of the most gorgeous women ever) and Johnny Depp (who IMHO is one of the most gorgeous men ever) but the cast included Dame Judi Dench, Leslie Caron and Alfred Molina (in case the names look unfamiliar, I’ve added a link to IMDB to the blog-site, just look them up). Plus the story seemed promising: woman moves into small French village with her daughter, shocks and ultimately breaks down the morality of the place – it felt like there was plenty of potential for subtle, good-hearted humour mixed with a sort of magic realist touch (like something out of a Marquez novel). Plus, of course, how could you not love a movie whose main theme was, well, chocolate (Juliette Binoche and dark cocoa – the two things that go to make heaven). So it was a bitter disappointment to me when the movie turned out to be merely a slightly above average love story, the force and brilliance of its opening losing its way rapidly in a sort of meaningless meandering more appropriate to Sue Kidd than to Isabelle Allende. I came away from it with a strong sense of wasted potential.
Then yesterday, I discovered the movie that Chocolat could have been, but wasn’t. Antonia’s Line is a Dutch film* that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1995. On the surface, the story is very similar to Chocolat (though of course, this movie was made earlier, so that it would be more accurate to say that Chocolat is similar to Antonia’s Line rather than the other way around). In the aftermath of World War II a widow returns to the small Dutch village where she was born, along with her teenage daughter, and the movie traces the way the village adjusts to her presence, and how she comes to make a place for herself in the place.
And there the similarity ends. For everything that was muddled and sentimental in Chocolat is illuminated and light-hearted here. The genius of Antonia’s Line is that it manages to be outrageous and daring without taking itself too seriously; that it manages to say some quite fundamental things about life and identity without being preachy but rather by laughing at itself; that it celebrates at once the simple pleasures of life, as well as its more complex excitements, making it a warm, wise and ultimately compassionate movie about life itself. The main message of the movie, if there is one, is that things can be beautiful and profound and silly at the same time, and that while there is joy to be had in ideas, we must not let them clutter our way to getting what we really want.
To begin with, the movie is a tribute to liberated and independent womanhood (ya, that line makes me cringe too, but I can’t put it any other way). Feminism here is not about rebelling against some established order, but rather about simply recognising that it can be ignored or worked around, and that you can’t let the mores of some outdated society keep you from getting what you really want. Early on in the movie, Antonia’s daughter, Danielle, decides that she wants a baby but doesn’t want a husband to go with it (not because she wants to make some major social point, just because she doesn’t want the hassle). What follows is a delightful expedition where mother and daughter make their way to the city looking for some way to find a man who will get Danielle pregnant so that they can go back to their farm and have the baby in peace (there’s this awesome scene where the daughter is having sex with this man in a hotel room, while her mother waits patiently outside, sipping wine and enjoying the sunlight). The point of the movie is that this isn’t a big deal – it’s not something that requires sleepless nights and soul-searching – if you just think about rationally, it really IS that simple.
Linked to this is the fact that the movie neither shies away from the harsh realities of life in mid-twentieth century rural Europe, nor glorifies the women who change that reality. Sexual abuse is a reality here, as is chauvinism, and Antonia is not above asking a male friend to get her to help her out when the need arises. Antonia’s dominance in the movie comes not so much from her zeal or struggle but simply from the clear-sightedness and compassion that she (and by extension the movie) brings to everything in the village.
And what a village it is. The other thing that makes this such an enjoyable movie is the way it creates a whole host of subsidiary characters – all fascinating in their own right. So we have the intellectual hermit Crooked Finger, who lives in almost complete isolation surrounded by his books, quoting Schopenhauer (the world is a hell, made up of tormented souls and devils) and Nietszche; the Mad Madonna, who howls from her window at the full moon; The Priest, who gives up the church because his desire for life is at odds with the church’s fascination with death (his words) and many, many other wonderful people. The point of these characters is not just that they are sharply etched and add both humour and interest to the story, it’s also the sense they give you of the richness of life and the feeling you get, watching the movie, of being part of a community.
All in all, Antonia’s Line is a fascinating watch: a light happy movie that you cannot so much watch as feel.
* Antonia’s Line (just Antonia in the original); written and directed by Marleen Gorris; Dutch with English subtitles.