The years have been quite kind to Chocolat which, during the previous decade, had earned an unfair reputation for getting that “What were they thinking?” slot at the Oscars. When the film was released in the winter of 2000, it received favorable reviews even though everyone agreed that there was nothing outstandingly remarkable about the movie. As it was, it looked like yet another of the confections Miramax, under the Weinstein brothers, had become so good at delivering: Hollywood pieces with a taste of European glamour.
Then the film got a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars and that became the parameter by which it was later judged. That year the film got into the prestigious category over more acclaimed pictures like Almost Famous, Billy Elliot, Requiem for a Dream and Dancer in the Dark, but let’s not kid ourselves, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has never been a beacon of progressive thinking when it comes to the cinema as an art form. Most of the movies just mentioned probably never even stood a chance at being nominated and as it was, Chocolat was an effective perpetuation of the elements that have always bewitched the Academy.
Chocolat is essentially a fable about not judging books by their covers. The film takes place during the year 1959 and stars Juliette Binoches as Vianne, a mysterious woman who arrives at a small French village with her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) as the period of Lent begins. The village, we are told, is a conservative little place where nothing is valued more than “tranquilité”, or the art of maintaining things as they are. The town’s moral center is its mayor, the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) who rules with a stern hand looking to rescue the value of morality in adverse times. Therefore, the whole town is turned upside down when Vianne opens a chocolaterie!
Such is the film’s thematic simplicity; chocolate becomes synonymous with every possible temptation you’d want to avoid during Lent. It’s not as if the woman opened a sex shop but it’s with something so innocent as chocolate, that the entire town opens its sharp teethed jaws and tries to swallow this sinning woman to expiate their own sins. Movies have often showed us the efficiency of food as metaphor for countless subjects, think Like Water for Chocolate, Ratatouille and even The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and her Lover, to name but a few.
Of course, Vianne is also the kind of person whom strangers want to be near to (with Binoche’s luminosity, who can blame them?) and soon several villagers begin coming to her for advice, laughs and chocolate. The sweet elixir helps an old man romance the woman he’s loved for decades, jump starts a married couple’s tedious love life and saves a woman from domestic violence. These characters are played by the likes of Leslie Caron, Lena Olin and Judi Dench, who plays Vianne’s landlady, a bitter old woman who conceals a heart of gold, in other words, every character Dench played during the ‘90s.
At first glance the story plays out merely like a well done tale and if you ignore its successful run with movie awards, the truth is that it remains just that: a sweet little treat that keeps you entertained for two hours. This must be what made audiences and critics so tough on the little film. How can a movie with Binoche, Dench and Johnny Depp (who plays a version of himself as the seductive gypsy who steals Vianne’s heart) feel so shallow? Shouldn’t it be a gargantuan philosophical study of something? Remember this was back in the days where Depp was still considered an arthouse performer.
The truth is that expecting more out of the film doesn’t mean it’s bad at all. It just is what it is and as that it succeeds in an old Hollywood kind of way, everything about it is so well thought out and manipulated that it’s easy to imagine any stock director grabbing the screenplay and delivering the same film. It’s no coincidence that its director, Lasse Hallstrom was snubbed when Oscar time came…
However despite its factory feel, the movie still is able to amaze us in unexpected ways. Binoche, for instance, turns in a beauty of a performance. She could’ve played Vianne like a sophisticated Julia Roberts’ character, but instead infuses her with a little something extra. In her facial expressions we are able to detect a woman who has a complicated backstory, one perhaps too dark to tell in this sweet tale. She gives the movie a timeless quality that fools us into believing it could be a forgotten treat from an obscure European country.
Of course, the film is also beautiful to behold and in this stunning HD transfer every piece of chocolate makes us want a taste. Roger Pratt’s lush cinematography shines throughout (the bonus features which were imported from the DVD version are presented in standard quality).
Chocolat is a sweet, charming flick that deserves a second chance. It might not make your life more meaningful and it might even send you off on some serious binge eating, but for all its worth, it’s old fashioned entertainment that could very well inspire you to seek classic movies—and that has never been a bad thing.