April 2024

Chocolat (2000)

chocolatDIRECTOR: Lasse Hallstrom

CAST: Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp, Alfred Molina, Judi Dench, Lena Olin, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugh O’Conor, Peter Stormare, John Wood, Leslie Caron, Victoire Thivisol


Chocolat is a fluffy dessert rather than a full banquet of cinematic depth, but if it stays on the side of being a trifle insubstantial, it’s still a delightful confection that whips light humor, a dash of romance, and food porn into a cute, safe little feel good movie that goes down as pleasantly and as easily as a cup of hot chocolate.

“Once upon a time”, begins the pseudo fairy tale narration, as we open in a small, quaint French town in the 1950s where everyone attends Mass and goes to confession, everyone knows their place, and standing out from the crowd is sternly frowned upon.  Then one day, a “sly North wind” blows in, bringing with it a pair of strangers, mother Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her young daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol).  The unabashed Vianne starts right out offending the sensibilities of the townsfolk when she freely admits she has never been married despite arriving with a daughter in tow, and matters only get worse when she reveals she does not attend church.  Vianne wastes no time setting up shop to open a chocolate store the likes of which the town has never seen.  While some find it offensive to open a chocolate shop during the month of Lent—intended as a period of abstaining from hedonism and indulgence—Vianne soon wins some converts, including Armande (Judi Dench), the cantankerous old woman she rents from, Guillaume (John Wood), an elderly man who is inspired by Vianne to pursue the widow (Leslie Caron) he has admired for years, and Josephine (Lena Olin), who seeks sanctuary from Vianne when she gathers up the nerve to flee her abusive husband Serge (Peter Stormare).  But to others, principally the Bible-thumping aristocratic mayor, Reynaud (Alfred Molina), the free-spirited, unorthodox Vianne is a corrupting influence upsetting the order of his uneventful little town and steering good God-fearing folk into decadence and temptation.  And tensions only grow stronger when a nomadic band of gypsies arrive on their riverboat, led by Roux (Johnny Depp), who strikes up a friendship and maybe more with Vianne.

Chocolat is one of those cute, safe movies where there aren’t any twists and turns that aren’t possible to see coming a mile away and, despite the occasional scattered more serious moment, nothing too dark or downbeat ever happens.  From the get-go, it’s obvious that it’s going to be one of those movies that depicts the church as an oppressive influence represented by fun-hating killjoys, and puts its sympathies firmly in the camp of the free-spirited and unconventional, but the mockery is gentle, the church leaders aren’t completely vilified, and Chocolat is too light and fluffy to be likely to cause deep offense to any but the most easily offended.  Of course Vianne’s bubbly personality and the love of chocolate will combine to melt the hearts of the crotchety Armande and help repair her relationship with her estranged daughter Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss).  Everyone, even the “villains”, will find love and learn to love chocolate (and by extension, life), and there will be happy endings all around.  But there’s nothing wrong with a competently made “feel good” movie sometimes, and Chocolat is pleasant enough for us to enjoy the ride, even if the destination isn’t anything surprising.

Chocolat features a strong cast ensemble.  Most of the characters are cliches—Judi Dench as the grouchy old woman, Carrie-Anne Moss (far removed from The Matrix‘s Trinity the year before) as the uptight, overprotective mother, Peter Stormare as a dim-witted brute, Lena Olin (wife of director Lasse Hallstrom) as his abused wife who gains a sense of empowerment, Alfred Molina as the humorless narrow-minded Bible-thumper—and not much we haven’t seen a lot of these actors play before, but they’re good enough to make the material go down easily.  Juliette Binoche has a luminous screen presence, radiating enough serene goodness to make us buy Vianne as a pseudo-magical force who blows into the stodgy town like a ray of sunshine.  Johnny Depp gives a subdued performance, restrained from the eccentricity we’ve come to expect from him.  He exudes an easy, sexy charm, and makes an appealing love interest even if his screentime is limited and he doesn’t show up until around halfway through.  Judi Dench (made up to look much older and more decrepit than she actually is) is her usual delightfully cantankerous self as the curmudgeon with a heart of gold.  French child actress Victoire Thivisol shows some spunk.  Alfred Molina, sporting villainously slicked-back hair and an oh-so-twirable mustache, does his best to play our more-or-less “villain” Reynaud with a measure of humanity—he’s narrow-minded and self-righteous with a stick up his ass, but not “evil”—even when the script pushes him into a bit of buffoonery toward the end.

 For director Lasse Hallstrom, whose The Cider House Rules the year before featured much heavier thematic content and some disturbing and powerful scenes, Chocolat is like the dessert after the main course.  The shots of the quaint French town and surrounding countryside are lovely and picturesque.  Apart from native French actors Juliette Binoche, Victoire Thivisol, and Leslie Caron, the rest of the international cast adopts varying degrees of more-or-less French accents, with the exception of Johnny Depp, who for whatever reason seems to be doing an Irish one.  The “life lessons” are handed down in easily digestible, uncomplicated ways, and while we occasionally hit a “serious dramatic scene”, things don’t get too heavy.  Chocolat might be too lightweight and fluffy to fill the stomach of those seeking a deeper dramatic experience, but for a little feel good entertainment, some light humor, a sprinkle of romance, and lots of chocolate, it serves as a mostly satisfying morsel.  That, and it might come as a runner-up behind Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for giving viewers a craving for indulging their sweet tooth.


* * *