In the 2000 romantic drama “Chocolat” a woman comes into a small French village and attempts to inject new life into the prudish community through her scrumptious chocolates. Sounds a little odd, right? Well in some ways it is but the film also delves into several heavier social and family issues sometimes convincingly but not always. It does have plenty of entertaining moments and it features some fine performances, but I’m still not convinced it’s a film worthy of the Oscar Best Picture nomination it received.
The story is based on Joanne Harris’ novel and written for the screen by Robert Nelson Jacobs. It takes place the a fictional French hilltop village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. One day a strong north wind blows Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her young daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) into town. The two newcomers quickly rent an abandoned patisserie and the apartment above it from the crabby Armande (Judi Dench). Vianne turns the place into a chocolate shop and begins to capture the attention of the locals.
One such local is Comte Paul de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), the town’s mayor who rules the community with an iron moral fist. He’s particularly turned off by Vianne for her more provocative attire and her insistence on opening a chocolate shop at the start of Lent. Reynaud goes to great lengths to sour the people’s view of Vianne but as more people taste her magical chocolate concoctions a profound change begins to take place in the village. Several townsfolk find that her chocolates cure personal troubles in their lives. They spark a new romance, they lead someone to independence, and in another case they even work as supercharged Viagra.
It seems that organized religion may serve as the punching bag in this film. It’s portrayed as stuffy, intolerant, and overbearing. But it’s the concept that’s the target more than the people. The people are treated more as simple-minded followers with Reynaud being the moral dictator and true mouthpiece of the church. But I was never fully convinced that Vianne was such a great person either. She certainly exposes several of the churches hypocrisies and she makes the lives of several people better. But she also uses some pretty disrespectful tactics including usurping parental authority and planning a fertility celebration on Easter Sunday clearly to be confrontational. The film treats these moves as positive but that’s not the way to win me over to her perspective. And what exactly is she? Is she a witch, a chocolate magician? I never did figure it out.
The film’s strongest point is its acting. Binoche is brilliant and she has always amazed me with the believability she brings to ever performance. Judi Dench was also great as Vianne’s grumpy landlady. Dench does ‘surly’ well and she’s a real treat here. I also loved the always underrated Alfred Molina. He was fantastic as a character who’s a lot more complex than you may think. Johnny Depp even pops up in a smaller role as a river drifter who catches Vianne’s eye. There are several other fine performances worth mentioning from Lena Olin, Carrie-Anne Moss, Leslie Caron, and Peter Stormare.
“Chocolat” is a movie that’s entertaining despite its occasional heavy-handedness and familiar storylines. It does suffer from a few periods of dullness and the conventional ending seems a little disjointed considering how most of the film seems quite unconventional. But it’s the performances that carry this film and there are enough interesting developments in the story to keep things moving. Yet despite that, there were some things that kept pushing me away and I can’t help thinking that there was potential here for a little more satisfying experience.